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How the baby formula shortage is impacting maternal mental health

empty shelf
Maayan Silver
The formula aisle at the Bayshore Target in Glendale, Wisconsin.

There’s a baby formula shortage happening across the country. Supply chain issues, product recalls and inflation are all contributing to the problem. This is a potentially life-threatening crisis for many infants who rely on formula, and parents are scrambling to find what they need.

The stress of not knowing where a baby’s food will come from can weigh heavy on parents, and for parents who already struggle with a postpartum mental health disorder, the shortage can seriously damage their ability to cope.

Sarah Bloomquist co-founded the Moms Mental Health Initiative along with Becky Schroeder in 2016, after their own experiences struggling with perinatal mental illnesses. The Wisconsin nonprofit helps moms navigate mood and anxiety disorders and connects them with resources and peer support. Lately, that support has included how to navigate the formula shortage.

"What I'm hearing from a lot of women that I work with is that this is destroying their ability to cope right now," says Bloomquist. "They already have a mental health struggle such as depression or anxiety, postpartum OCD, bipolar disorder. So they already might already be struggling with a mental health disorder, and then you add to it the fact that they might not be able to find enough food to feed their baby — that just is appalling."

Lake Effect's conversation with Sarah Bloomquist.

The inability to cope with these additional stressors, plus being faced with more decision-making when there are so many factors that go into a mother's feeding journey, is going to "make more moms suffer at a rate that they wouldn't have before," according to Bloomquist.

Parents already face a lot of criticism, and to increasingly hear the question, "Why don't you just breastfeed your child?," is not what parents need to be hearing from anyone, she adds.

[Mothers] already might already be struggling with a mental health disorder, and then you add to it the fact that they might not be able to find enough food to feed their baby — that just is appalling."

Three out of four babies rely on formula at some point in the first six months of their life, says Bloomquist. There are many reasons why exclusively breastfeeding isn't the best option — from women struggling to breastfeed or produce milk, their baby's struggles or a child is premature and has specific nutritional needs.

"I also challenge people who say, 'Well why don't you just breastfeed?,' I also challenge them, 'What are you doing to provide better support so women can breastfeed and breastfeed exclusively and long term?'" she says.

Bloomquist notes that there are poor systems in place to help women in their breastfeeding journey when they go back to work, when they work in jobs with little to no maternity leave policies and whose workplace doesn't provide a place for them to pump and store their milk.

"When there's struggles around [feeding], you feel like a failure. And in certain communities, formula is shunned and in other communities, breastfeeding is shunned or not even given an option."

Bloomquist says she is seeing a lot of emotional support for mothers struggling with the formula shortage in the Moms Mental Health Initiative online peer support group. Mothers who don't even need formula are extending help to find it or even offering their own milk.

In addition to online support groups, Bloomquist recommends contacting your local health department, the CDC, the WIC Department, milk banks, lactation support groups at hospitals and lactation consultants for help and resources to get through this period until formula is consistently available again.

Here's a resource list compiled by the Moms Mental Health Initiative

Bloomquist understands this struggle all too well — she had to formula feed her own children because her milk didn't come in as she was struggling with severe postpartum depression, anxiety and couldn't eat herself.

"I just can't image going through that and also trying to figure out where am I going to get the formula to feed my baby who's already losing weight because I'm not making enough milk," she reflects.

Bloomquist wants struggling mothers to know that she hears them, understands their struggles and is working to fight for better care and better options. She encourages everyone to reach out to support groups or friends who are safe and won't shame them.

"I want them to know you are a good mother and you are a good parent, and you're doing everything you can to be that. No one should be doing this on their own. This is a community issue and we need to address it as a community."

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
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