Even under the best of circumstances, establishing a breastfeeding routine is difficult. I’m a mother of five and breastfed them all, yet when my youngest was born in the summer of 2021, I needed gentle guidance from my midwife to get it right again.
This is after spending over 50 months of my life nursing my other children until at least their first birthday, and sometimes long after that.
Contrary to popular wisdom, not everything that is “natural” is “easy.” The barriers to breastfeeding, according to a U.S. Surgeon General report, can include physical pain or discomfort, an insufficient milk supply and the infant’s inability to latch on — problems not easily solved on the internet. “Women who encounter these problems early on are less likely to continue to breastfeed unless they get professional help,” the report said.
Imagine doing this for the first time during a pandemic, with little or no assistance.
Over the course of the pandemic, the already dismal support mothers were receiving disappeared or went virtual. That’s why, according to The Wall Street Journal, “One of the contributing factors in the U.S. baby-formula shortage is a significant shift in the way parents feed their babies: Breastfeeding declined during the pandemic, reversing a decadeslong trend, health practitioners say.”
Since 2020, the share of breastfed 1-year-olds plummeted from an estimated 34% to an estimated 14% this year, according to Demographic Intelligence, a forecasting firm that specializes in births and works with formula manufacturers including Abbott Laboratories and Nestlé. (Because of the small sample size, the firm’s 2022 estimate has a range of error of plus or minus 6 percentage points.)
While the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months, that simply isn’t possible for some women, and it’s even less possible without professional help.
Two Maryland mothers — Liba in Silver Spring and Faith in St. Mary’s County — told me they gave birth during the pandemic to babies with lip and tongue ties, a common physical variation in the mouth that inhibits efficient breastfeeding.
Faith said, “I think I only saw a lactation consultant once during our two days (at the hospital). They were not offering in-person support and instead had a Facebook support group, which is completely different. … It took seven months until she was finally diagnosed with a severe upper lip tie and had it reversed. By that point, we had struggled with insufficient removal for so long that my (milk) supply was almost gone, despite me trying every trick in the book.”
Mary Clare Amselem, a mother of two in North Carolina, compared the experience of a baby born at the start of the pandemic and two years later, telling me, “(I had my) first in March of 2020 and couldn’t see a lactation consultant because the world was shut down.
“We really struggled with his latch, which led to a low supply, and I had to start supplementing with formula at four months. (When I) had my second, and now there’s a formula shortage, I didn’t mess around this time and worked with a lactation consultant from day one.”
These mothers’ struggles are just a few examples of how the nation’s COVID-19 response failed families. We shut off crucial in-person support for new mothers and their babies, and then as breastfeeding rates declined and more mothers relied on formula, they faced a severe baby formula shortage in the midst of historic and crushing inflation.
Meanwhile, the response of many armchair commenters was that mothers should have “just” been breastfeeding all along.
Another mother shared with me her monthslong breastfeeding struggle, in which she’s had to supplement her baby with formula in order to maintain adequate nutrition. Now, she’s struggling with whether to go back to work full-time in order to pay the bills, but that presents a problem for feeding her baby.
“I don’t want to quit breastfeeding, but my husband and I have to make real decisions about income in an economy where our rent went up by $300, gas prices doubled, and our baby’s formula is hard to find at all,” she said.
The way in which the U.S. COVID-19 response hurt children and families is multifaceted and began with excessive closures of schools for more than a year in many areas of the country. But it didn’t end there.
Our society’s failure to support new mothers learning to breastfeed, then denying them adequate access to formula that has skyrocketed in price, and shaming them for having to use formula in the first place is a slap in the face for parents, one that few will forget.
Bethany Mandel is a contributing writer for Deseret News. She is a home-schooling mother of five and a widely published writer on politics, culture and Judaism. She is an editor for the children’s book series “Heroes of Liberty.”