Baby formula shortage highlights racial disparities

COLUMBIA, Md. (AP) — Capri Isidoro broke down in tears in a lactation consultant’s office.

The mother-of-two had been struggling to breastfeed her one-month-old daughter since she was born, when the hospital first gave the baby formula without consulting her about her desire to breastfeed.

Now, with massive safety recalls and supply disruptions causing formula shortages in the United States, she also can’t find the specific formula that helps relieve her baby’s gas pains.

“It’s so sad. It shouldn’t be like this,” said Isidoro, who lives in the Baltimore suburb of Ellicott City. “We need formula for our child, and where will that formula come from? ?”

As parents across the United States struggle to find formula to feed their children, the pain is particularly acute among black and Hispanic women. Black women have historically faced barriers to breastfeeding, including a lack of lactation support in the hospital, increased pressure for infant formula, and cultural barriers. This is one of many inequalities for black mothers: they are much more likely to die from pregnancy complications.and less likely to have their pain concerns taken seriously by doctors.

Low-income families buy the majority of infant formula in the United States and face a particular struggle: Experts worry that small neighborhood grocery stores that serve these vulnerable populations may not restock as much as larger retail stores, leaving some of these families without resources or means. chasing the formula.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 20% of black women and 23% of Hispanic women breastfeed exclusively for six months, compared to 29% of white women. The overall rate is 26%. Hospitals that encourage breastfeeding and comprehensive lactation support are less common in black neighborhoods, according to the CDC.

The Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses also says Hispanic and Black women classified as low-wage workers have less access to lactation support in the workplace.

Racial disparities go far back in America’s history. The demands of slave labor prevented mothers from nursing their children, and slave owners separated mothers from their own babies to serve as wet nurses, nursing the children of other women.

In the 1950s, racially targeted advertisements incorrectly advertised formula milk as a superior nutritional source for infants. And studies continue to show that babies of black mothers are more likely to be introduced to formula in the hospital than babies of white mothers, which happened to Isidoro after his emergency C-section.

Doctors say the introduction of formula milk means that the baby will need fewer feedings from the mother, which will decrease milk production because the breast is not stimulated enough to produce.

Andrea Freeman, author of the book “Skimmed: Breastfeeding, Race and Injustice,” said these mothers still don’t get the support they need when it comes to having the choice to breastfeed or use formula. mother’s milk. They may also have jobs that don’t take into account the time and space needed to breastfeed or express milk, Freeman said.

“No one takes responsibility for the fact that they pointed families of color to the formula for so many years and made people rely on it and took the choice away from them. And then when that collapses, there’s no real recognition or accountability,” Freeman said.

Breastfeeding practices are often influenced by previous generations, with some studies suggesting better outcomes for mothers who were breastfed as babies.

Kate Bauer, associate professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, said she started hearing in February of black and Latino families in Detroit and Grand Rapids feeling stuck after finding small grocery stores running out of formula.

Some were told to visit the local office of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, better known as WIC, the federal program that supports low-income pregnant women and new mothers. Between 50% and 65% of the formula in the United States is purchased through the program.

“Going to the WIC office is like an all-day errand for some moms,” Bauer said.

She worries that mothers are desperate enough to try foods that are not recommended for babies under 6 months.

Yury Navas, a Salvadoran immigrant who works at a restaurant and lives in Laurel, Maryland, says she was unable to produce enough breast milk and struggled to find the right formula for her breast milk. nearly 3-month-old baby Jose Ismael after others caused vomiting, diarrhea and discomfort.

Once they drove half an hour to a store where the employees told them they had the type she needed, but there were none left when they arrived. Her husband goes out every evening to search the pharmacies around midnight.

“It’s so hard to find that guy,” she said, saying sometimes they run out of it before they can get more prep. “The baby will cry and cry, so we give him rice water.”

On a recent day, she had gone down to her last container and called an advocacy group who had told her they would try to get some for her on a date in five days. But the group could not guarantee anything.

Some moms have taken to social media and even befriended fellow locals to expand their network while out shopping.

In Miami, construction company owner Denise Castro started a virtual group to support new moms during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now he’s helping moms get the formula they need when they get back to work. One is a Hispanic teacher whose job leaves her little flexibility to care for her 2-month-old baby, who has been sensitive to many brands of infant formula.

“Most of the moms we help are black and Latina,” Castro said. “These moms really don’t have time to visit three or four places during their lunch hour.”

Lisette Fernandez, a 34-year-old Cuban-American mother of first-time twins, relied on friends and family to find the 2-ounce bottles of liquid she needs for her boy and daughter. Earlier this week, her father visited four different pharmacies before he could get her boxes with the tiny bottles. They wear out quickly as babies grow.

Fernandez said she was unable to initiate breastfeeding, trying with an electric pump but saying she was producing very little. Her mother, who arrived in Miami from Cuba when she was 7, had chosen not to breastfeed her children, saying she did not want to, and had taken medication to suppress lactation.

Some studies have attributed changes in breastfeeding behavior among Hispanics to assimilation, claiming that Latino immigrants view formula feeding as an American practice.

“The last three to six weeks it’s been crazy,” Fernandez said. “I’m used to everything COVID has brought. But worrying about my kids not getting milk? I didn’t see it coming.”

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