Is breast milk the shortage of formula milk?

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Across the United States, families are scrambling to feed their babies as baby formula becomes less and less available.

According to CNN, a month of February recall of three infant formula brands and ongoing supply chain issues have contributed to shortages that have left store shelves empty. In response, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the FDA was doing everything possible to ramp up production to meet demand, CNN reports.

But right now, some families have few options for giving their babies the nutrients they need.

“It’s not always so simple to say ‘go breastfeed,'” says Jamie Ladge, Associate Professor in the Management and Organizational Development Group at the D’Amore-McKim School of Business. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

CNN reporter Gabby Orr is one of them. “The formula milk shortage becomes unreal,” she tweeted. “No grocery store near us has the brand we use, it’s temporarily out of stock on Amazon Prime and the generic version that’s ‘available’ on Amazon has a 1-2 month lead time.” Other parents told POLITICO they are “panic” in the face of the shortage.

The problem may contribute to pre-existing pressures on women to switch to breastmilk. But North East experts say it would be a mistake to assume breast milk is still a viable alternative to using formula, and the current crisis may make buying it riskier than ever.

“The pressure to breastfeed has always been a problem,” says Jamie Ledge, Associate Professor in the Management and Organizational Development Group at the D’Amore-McKim School of Business. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that infants are breastfed for the first six months of life, and that pressure— by doctors, relatives, or others — choosing this option can already be overwhelming for some parents. When asked if the formula shortage might change that, Ladge replied, “I suspect it would exacerbate the pressure.”

But breastfeeding is far from a miracle solution to formula shortages for many families. “It’s not always so simple to just say ‘go breastfeed’, especially for those who may not be able to or have had to stop for some reason, or for those who have never started because they relied on formula,” says Ladge.

In addition to biological barriers, breastfeeding comes with a host of hidden costs that can include breastfeeding clothes, lactation consultants, and pumps, as well as indirect costs such as time off and the extra cost of food (the CDC recommends breastfeeding mothers use 330 to 400 extra calories per day). Some of them may be covered by insurance, but some may not.

When you buy milk online from random vendors, “you don’t know what you’re getting,” says Nikos Passas, professor of criminology and criminal justice at Northeastern. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

For those who cannot breastfeed but are looking to use breastmilk, the breastmilk market might be a tempting option. Breastmilk can be purchased on Craigslist or on specialized sites as Only the breast. These sites allow buyers to purchase excess milk that others have frozen.

The problem with this, according to Nikos Passasprofessor of criminology and criminal justice at Northeastern, is that the breast milk market is “largely unregulated”, leaving parents vulnerable to the risks associated with buying milk online.

These risks include health problems for the baby. On the one hand, shoppers may not be aware that the breast milk they are buying may not be suitable for their baby. “Breast milk from a newborn is not appropriate for an older baby,” Passas says.

Then there are concerns about the seller and the quality of the milk. Families are strongly encouraged to check with their health care provider before using someone else’s milk, he says, and to make sure the donor has been screened for health issues, as diseases such as HIV and certain medications can be passed on to a baby. There are also other risks of buying from foreigners, as vendors may use incorrect or unsanitary equipment, or fail to store milk according to guidelines. For strict standards on breast milk storage, Passas cites the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, which publishes detailed guidelines on who can donate milk and how it should be processed and stored.

Further, there is no guarantee that a seller claiming to be a healthy non-smoker is telling the truth, and they might even be selling anything other than human breast milk (Passas cites a case where breast milk purchased online was mixed with cow’s milk). When you buy milk online from random sellers, “you don’t know what you’re getting.” Unfortunately, some of these dangers also apply to used preparations.

Despite the risks, Passas believes the breastmilk market could see a boom during the current formula shortage. “Any time you have an asymmetry between demand and supply, you have problems,” he says. “That’s what fuels the illegal markets.”

And until the shortage is resolved, desperation can push families towards them.

For Ladge, it’s an added stressor that parents across the country didn’t need. “You just have to add that to the mix of what working parents have had to deal with in the caregiving crisis over the past two years,” she says. “Becoming a parent, and working on top of it, has never been so difficult.”

For media inquiriesplease contact Marirose Sartoretto at [email protected] or 617-373-5718.

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