Viral baby-formula thread shows moms can’t just breastfeed through a shortage

As concerns grow about the baby formula shortage, a New Jersey-based scholar has gone viral for offering some perspective on how families historically fed their babies beyond breastfeeding — and the tragedies that sometimes resulted from relying on homemade alternatives.

Carla Cevasco, an assistant professor in American studies at Rutgers University and an expert in subjects related to food and hunger, posted a thread on Twitter that looked at the current shortage in context. Her first point: Even before the rise of commercial formula, families often didn’t rely on breastfeeding.

“You may be hearing the argument that before the rise of modern commercial infant formula, babies all ate breastmilk and everything was great,” she wrote. “As a historian of infant feeding, let me tell you why that’s not true.”

Cevasco told MarketWatch that “there’s this inaccurate narrative that everyone breastfed and it was easy, that this was a breastfeeding paradise.”

In fact, Cevasco notes that women often didn’t breastfeed in the past for the same reasons they don’t today. Those reasons could range from the mother having an insufficient supply of milk to the child having trouble latching on.

And that’s not factoring in the many women who died during childbirth in the past — meaning that there was no choice for the family but to find an alternative food source.

Related: Baby formula shortage persists, but experts warn that you shouldn’t make your own or buy it online from overseas. Here’s why.

There have been countless examples of such sources. In her thread, Cevasco points to one example — a recipe of boiled walnuts, cornmeal and water that the Wabanaki, a Native American collective of tribes, created for their young.

But that brings Cevasco to another one of her key points: that reliance on such homemade alternatives carried consequences. These pre-commercial “formulas” could be tainted in various ways, such as through simple spoilage, with infant death being the dreaded result.

“There was no guarantee that the child was going to survive,” Cevasco said.

Ultimately, Cevasco said she’s hoping to shed light on the fact that our modern-day commercial formulas, which are often seen as a lesser solution to breastfeeding, should be respected for what they offer.

Or, as Cevasco told MarketWatch, “Parents in the past would have been so grateful to know” that there was a healthy alternative to breast milk.

Supply-chain setbacks and Abbott’s ABT
voluntary recall of powdered formulas in February have set up a baby-formula shortage around the US that has become serious enough for President Joe Biden to speak with retailers and infant formula manufacturers on Thursday to receive an update on efforts to make infant formula supply more available to American families. Abbott said it can restart production of its baby formulas at a plant in Michigan within two weeks if US regulators allow it to do so.

Read more: As a baby formula shortages worsen, Abbott says he can get some product back on store shelves in July

In the meantime, some desperate parents have discussed making their own formula at home, which pediatricians and professional trade groups — including the American Academy of Pediatricians — have strongly advised against. “Although recipes for homemade formulas circulating on the internet may seem healthy or less expensive, they are not safe and do not meet your baby’s nutritional needs,” Steven Abrams, a board-certified pediatrician and a professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote for a Healthy Children column.

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