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Breastfeeding challenges highlighted by local activists amid formula shortage

The baby-formula shortage has led some to question why the U.S. doesn't provide more support for breastfeeding. Here, a woman breastfeeds her son outside New York City Hall during a 2014 rally to support breastfeeding in public.
Andrew Burton
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The baby-formula shortage has led some to question why the U.S. doesn't provide more support for breastfeeding. Here, a woman breastfeeds her son outside New York City Hall during a 2014 rally to support breastfeeding in public.

With the baby formula shortage continuing to plague families and caretakers across New Mexico, many are feeling the stress and uncertainty of how they are going to feed their infants.

The head of the U.S. Food and Drug administration told a Senate committee Thursday that he expects there to be a surplus of infant formula to be available in the next two months. He also said the U.S government should look into creating a stockpile of formula in the future, should a shortage happen again.

In the meantime, New Mexico has created a website, NMformula.com to help ease the stress on families and caretakers looking to locate formula for their infants.

Included in the resources available on this website is a link to the Human Milk Repository of New Mexico, a non-profit organization that provides human milk to preterm, medically fragile, and sick infants.

Since the formula shortage began, Lindsey Maurer, donor coordinator at the Human Milk Repository said both the number of donations and people seeking milk have gone up.

“We’ve had a giant leap in people contacting us trying to donate, we’ve even had some moms that have not been producing milk for a little bit trying to re-lactate because they want to help out this community.”

Those looking to receive donor milk from the repository can purchase it for $4.50 an ounce. But due to the high demand, the Executive Director of the repository Kael Marshall has set aside scholarship grants they received in order to help those seeking milk pay for 40 ounces. Maurer, who is also a lactation education specialist, said their organization is also receiving a lot of calls from mothers seeking help and guidance on breastfeeding their own children.

“I am able to help moms with breastfeeding, rather they want to donate whatever they need, if they just need some help, I can help them with that.”

According to the CDC’s breastfeeding report card, 83.4% of children born in 2017 in New Mexico were breastfed. But those numbers dip down on those infants who were exclusively breastfed. Only 49.1% were exclusive through 3 months, and 26.5% through 6 months.

For Maurer and the Human Milk Repository, they recognize the importance of breastfeeding your child from birth, and how they can lead to a healthier life for them.

“Mother’s own milk is best, we’re a second line of defense for babies in the hospital or babies at home. Breast milk is the best option for babies if at all possible. A lot of moms are moving towards breastfeeding, and that’s a great move for our community.”

According to the CDC, breastfeeding can help “protect babies against some short- and long-term illnesses and diseases. Breastfed babies also have a lower risk of asthma, obesity, type 1 diabetes, and sudden infant death syndrome.

Monica Esparza, who is the executive director at the New Mexico Breastfeeding TaskForce said most of the issues families and caretakers have encountered during this formula shortage could’ve been avoided if resources were put back into the communities and not into these formula companies.

“So many funds, so many resources right away get shared to the formula companies and get formula production back up and running. Where in reality, this could have been prevented if we had put resources into communities that support lactation and parents themselves.”

Esparza goes on to say that more parents and families need to be afforded the opportunity to breast/chest feed their children, and the community should be assisting them in this endeavor.

This call for more support was echoed by Melissa Maria Lopez of the NM Doula Association.

“This whole formula shortage really sheds a light on the lack of support that exists for families of all types. Rather it is breastfeeding/chest-feeding families, formula feeding, all families are really struggling to get the support that they need.”

Lopez said most families start out with the intention to breastfeed, but are unable to access the resources they need to continue breastfeeding. Lopez also alluded to providers casting doubt on the breastfeeding process for some families and suggested their infant needs formula.

In terms of the placement of formula within the marketplace, Sunshine Muse, executive director of the Black Health New Mexico and New Mexico Birth Equity Collective said it was a strategic placement from the start.

“If you look into the history of the introduction of formulas, it was really strategic. It wasn’t because most women weren’t lactating, it was related directly to bringing more women into the workforce because men were going off to war.”

Muse says while formula can be helpful to some families and infants, it's not superior to breast milk. It also should be up to families and communities to decide how to raise and feed their children, Muse said. The formula shortage issues can be traced back to lack of access, who controls production, and rather or not women and families have autonomy to raise their children in ways that are most natural to their culture.

The formula companies also employ deceptive advertising practices and take advantage of their place in the market, according to Lopez.

“These formula companies are really capitalizing on those who choose to formula feed or are otherwise unable to breastfeed. The practices, the marketing practices are deceptive and they act as if these formulas are equivalent or better than breast milk. But we know that first foods and breast milk is the foundation for a lifetime of improved health outcomes for moms and babies. So to deny that is criminal.”

But it’s not just the marketplace that takes advantage of those attempting to breastfeed. Esparza said the issue runs far deeper than just the marketplace pressures.

“Families can’t afford to seek the support they need because we’re living in deserts that don’t provide the actual cultural responsive support they need to address any issues that come up with breastfeeding or chest-feeding. I feel that dread that comes with I hope I can (breastfeed) because of all these humongous barriers pitted against me.”

Gino Gutierrez was born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico. A lifelong resident of New Mexico, Gino found interest in broadcasting after falling in love with sports and sports broadcasting. He attended the University of New Mexico, where he majored in mass media journalism. While at UNM, he worked the New Mexico Daily Lobo, serving as both sports and managing editor. He can also be heard providing play-by-play commentary for the Lobo Hockey Network.