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National Breastfeeding Month: The Formula Shortage & Its Affect on Parents' Mental Health

Sarah Austin, Doula
Guest Blogger
Breastfeeding: He’s just using your boobs as a pacifier. Cover up when you do that in public. Isn’t she a little too old for mommy milk?

Formula feeding: I thought you wanted to go all natural? If you didn’t give up when it got hard, you wouldn’t need to use formula. Do you even know what chemicals are in that?

All of those above statements are atrocious, yet commonly said to new mothers. No matter how mothers feed their babies, both sides feel shame and guilt of not being enough. These feelings of inadequacy are especially potent during the postpartum period of a mother’s life. According to the American Psychological Association, Postpartum depression occurs in 1 of every 7 women. But those are pre-2020, pre-global pandemic statistics.

While the impacts of the Coronavirus pandemic are not yet fully understood, feelings of depression, isolation, and anxiety have skyrocketed; even more so for parents of young children and postpartum women and birthing people.

The formula shortage, which parents have been faced with since February of 2022, has exacerbated all of the normal stress of being a parent to a newborn, on top of living during a global pandemic. The mom guilt that sometimes springs from formula feeding, whether it be from internalized messages from the mom herself, her family, or from society at large, is especially heart wrenching during this time of supply shortage.

As a birth worker, I have seen the struggle firsthand. It has been an absolute nightmare for so many parents. New parents are having to leave their homes — literally all day long — to drive around and hope they find the thing that keeps their baby alive. I repeat, these parents are tasked with an entirely new and scary kind of stress. Instead of being at home resting and bonding with their infants, new mothers and birthing people are having to drive, or ride a bus, or walk to find formula, while recovering from giving birth.

I cannot imagine the stress of having a newborn, functioning on little sleep, and having to worry about this on top of it. And that doesn’t even address the prematurely born babies and babies born with special medical conditions, whose parents are already stressed to the max. And it’s important to mention that Black infants are disproportionately impacted as only 76% are ever breastfed, which is below the national average of 84%, according to CDC data.

A ray of hope through this difficult time has been access to a larger community to reach out to. Mothers are connecting online. There are Facebook and other social media groups being created to let those who need a certain formula know where it is, even states away. Women are sending packages across the US to babies who need it. Families have been able to vent their frustrations to one another online instead of carrying around that anger and hurt all alone. Additionally, according to the APA, online therapy treatment has steadily increased since 2020. While it is not the most ideal therapy set up for some, it is the only option for many people. This has been especially important for parents of newborns, as it is sometimes easier to not have to leave your home (and pack the nine thousand things babies need).

Aside from online therapy and social media groups for sharing resources, online peer support is proving to be crucial for new parents. The WhiteFlag App provides a safe space to connect with other parents who are struggling or who have been there; there’s an option to choose “postpartum” as something you’re going through or have struggled with in the past. Talking with other parents who have been there is not only validating and therapeutic, but also reminds you that you truly aren’t alone.

While the formula crisis is ongoing, we can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. The plant that shut down earlier this year is now reopening, which will hopefully correct supply chain issues that were a direct result of the pandemic. In the meantime, reach out to the people you know who are new parents and offer to glance at the store for their formula. And if you really want to make their day, send them gift cards to their favorite places to eat because moms have to eat too!


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