With Formula Scarcity, California Moms Are Sharing Breastmilk

For Diana Granados, 29, the quest began with a caption on a popular Instagram page for new parents.

“Do you have a formula to spare?”

Not Granados. But thinking about the current national shortage of infant formula and babies like her 6-month-old son, Raul, who was hungry, she wanted to provide the next best thing.

“Hello, I have breast milk to donate,” Baldwin Park’s mom wrote in the comments. Within minutes, requests were pouring in.

“They wanted to explain to me why they needed the milk,” Granados said. “I was like, ‘I don’t even need to know that! I just want to give it to you.

Granados is one of thousands of breastfeeding parents from across California who have flocked to help deal with the ongoing emergency. While their neighbors scramble to find formula, some breastfeeding parents look to their own bodies as a source of relief.

Diana Granados plays on the floor with her 6-month-old son Raul at their Baldwin Park home.

(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

“The number of donors we’re seeing has increased dramatically over the past week,” said Jonathan Bautista, executive director of the nonprofit Mothers’ Milk Bank of San Jose, the nation’s oldest human milk bank.

The state’s other nonprofit bank, the University of California Health Milk Bank in San Diego, saw a similar increase.

“We’ve had five times as many donation requests in the last six days,” Dr. Lisa Stellwagen, the bank’s executive director and professor of pediatrics at UCSD, said Tuesday. “It’s been this huge outpouring.”

For millions of families, the formula shortage was already acute in April. But the crisis exploded into public consciousness last week, when baby food aisles at local supermarkets and national chains such as Walmart and Target were nearly stripped. At a Mid-City Target store on Wednesday, rainbow rows of pureed fruit and vegetable porridge sat facing empty shelves, along with a few more gallon jugs of sterile water and Pedialyte apartments where the formula would normally be.

The response from other parents was quick. Groups on Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp have rallied to connect neighbors with formula to those in need. Others swapped tips on which stores had stock and how to get around strict import restrictions on foreign formula brands.

Now moms like Granados are offering their freezer supplies to strangers on the internet.

A woman looks at bags of breast milk on a counter.

Diana Granados of Baldwin Park reviews the bags of breast milk she plans to donate to families struggling to find formula.

(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

“I didn’t even know giving was a thing until a month ago,” she said. “When I saw people struggling, I thought, why not?”

The government has also stepped up its efforts to help.

Late Wednesday, President Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to rapidly increase domestic formula supply and to begin transporting foreign inventory from overseas. The move follows an announcement by the Food and Drug Administration earlier this week to temporarily relax rules allowing some foreign formula makers to sell their products in the United States.

The agency also reached a consent decree with the nation’s largest formula maker, Abbot Laboratories, to reopen its Sturgis, Michigan plant after serious health and safety violations were discovered there. in February. Abbott and other formula makers will appear before the House Energy and Commerce Committee next week.

Meanwhile, the White House has urged states to loosen restrictions on the brand, type and size of formula families can buy with government assistance. The Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, pays for about half of the formula sold in the United States, and low-income families who rely on it have been hit particularly hard by the shortage.

Still, it’s unclear how quick or widespread the relief will be. Abbott said products from its Sturgis plant won’t hit store shelves until August. Foreign manufacturers are instantly sending requests to the FDA. And the lion’s share of two key ingredients in the formula – sunflower oil and high oleic safflower oil – are stuck behind the front lines in Ukraine.

For Bay Area mom Megan Vieira, there’s no time to wait and see. Although she exclusively pumped breast milk for her daughter and then breastfed her son, the 38-year-old is preparing to dry up her milk when her third child is born in late May.

“I’ve never suppressed my milk before, but I’ll have to to start radiation therapy,” said Vieira, who was diagnosed with breast cancer days after learning she was expecting again. “I might be able to feed him for a week or two, if it works out with surgery and chemo. But after that, I can’t anymore.

Formula being in short supply, she began stocking up on donor milk instead.

“Breastfeeding is a very difficult thing to do, and it’s always been a little stressful for me,” she said. “But chasing donor milk is its own brand of stress.”

Although now mostly done on the internet, sharing milk is an ancient custom that transcends cultures, geography and religions, experts said. A Jewish tradition holds that all converts to the faith are descendants of children nurtured by the matriarch Sarah. In Muslim communities, breastfeeding someone else’s child creates a lifelong obligation and a bond of kinship between two families.

But the practice also has a coercive past, according to Dr. Cecilia Tomori, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing who studies infant feeding. For millennia, poor women have found work as nannies, putting their own children at risk to earn money for their families. In the United States, enslaved women were forced to breastfeed the children of slave owners while their own babies starved to death.

Infant formula has its own ugly history. UNICEF estimates that more than one million infants died each year due to the predatory marketing of infant formula in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Baby formula shelves are nearly empty at a Compton store.

Shelves for infant formula were nearly empty at a Compton store earlier this month.

(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

Today, most American families use a combination of breast milk and formula between birth and age one, according to government data. Yet the two power options are often presented as bitter enemies. For many formula-feeding parents, the shortage has intensified feelings of guilt and shame over the choice not to breastfeed or the struggle to produce enough milk for their babies.

These struggles are closely linked to postpartum depression. But they are also intimately linked to poverty. While the majority of parents who give birth say they want to breastfeed their baby, data shows that those living in or near poverty are half as likely to do so.

“There is this idea of ​​individual moral obligation [around infant feeding], when in fact the whole story is about structural failures,” Tomori said. “If we really cared about how to support people…we would provide paid leave, we would provide skilled lactation support and we would provide breast milk banks.”

Such banks exist, but their scope is limited. While donor breast milk is made available to parents on prescription, like cancer patient Vieira, most is sent to neonatal intensive care units, where it is given to premature and low birth weight infants. said Bautista, of Mothers’ Milk Bank. For these babies, breastmilk is not just food, but life-saving medicine.

That’s because the smallest infants are at risk for a devastating digestive complication called necrotizing enterocolitis, or NEC. NEC kills about a third of all babies with it and leaves many others with lifelong complications, said Stellwagen, of the University of California Health Milk Bank. Decades of studies show that those who receive breast milk – whether from a parent or a donor – are much less likely to get sick than those who receive only formula during their first weeks of life.

“The need for donor milk is constant,” Bautista said. “Milk banks like us must continually recruit donors [in order to meet demand].”

As with formula, demand for donor milk has increased significantly this year compared to the same period in 2021. While Bautista and Stellwagen welcomed the sudden interest in donating, they cautioned against sharing informal milk.

“As a family, you might be very tempted to take it, and it’s such a selfless gift — however, you won’t be able to control the donor,” like a milk bank can, Stellwagen said.

Milk bank donors must answer detailed questions about their diet and drug use, as well as piercings, tattoos, sexual partners and even recent incarceration, Bautista said. They must provide medical records and obtain written permission from their obstetrician and their baby’s pediatrician to donate. All milk bank products are pasteurized and tested for contamination, and donors must undergo special blood tests before their milk can be accepted.

For Granados and many others, that’s just not feasible, especially with the demands of a job and a new baby.

“I tried to contact the banks, but they have a lot of demands and I don’t have time,” she said. “I’m so busy with work and my child.”

For Vieira, prescription donor milk is also out of reach. The cost can exceed $150 per liter, which is enough to feed a newborn for two days or a 3-month-old baby for one.

Instead, she filled her new freezer with the kindness of strangers.

“It was stressful hearing about the formula shortage and thinking, what if I can’t get that baby food?” said the mother. “Now there’s a sense of security, a sense that this kid is going to eat.”

Los Angeles Times

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