Why Are We So Dependent on Baby Formula?

Dr. Linda Dahl
6 min readMay 28, 2022

It’s Not as Simple as Telling Women to “Just Breastfeed”

Photo by Lucy Wolski on Unsplash

In February, Abbott Laboratories, makers of Similac, closed its plant in Michigan after four babies became ill from bacterial infections after drinking their formula. Despite claims that there was no link between its formula and the infections, Abbott initiated a voluntary, nationwide recall. When combined with the existing supply chain problems, bureaucracy, the U.S.’s systemic lack of support for infant and child care, and the fact that the baby formula industry is an oligopoly controlled by just three companies, the result of the recall has been a nationwide shortage. As much as 43% of formula is out of stock at stores around the country.

In the face of this national baby formula crisis, President Biden announced a plan to address the shortage, including the invocation of the Defense Production Act. Over the weekend, the U.S. military airlifted a shipment of baby formula from Europe. According to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack who greeted the delivery, the 78,000 of pounds of formula delivered is enough to feed 9,000 babies and 18,000 toddlers for one week. But what are the rest of the 75% of American babies and toddlers who receive at least some formula, according to the latest CDC Breastfeeding Report Card, to do? “Try breastfeeding,” many — including celebrity Bette Middler — have said.

If only it were that simple.

Most of us, mothers or not, have heard the saying “breast is best.” That comes largely from the group of seven housewives in a Chicago suburb who, in 1956, founded what would later become La Leche League. La Leche pooled their collective knowledge into a book called The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, which became one of the first breastfeeding guides for mothers. La Leche went on to found the International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners and train lactation consultants to provide hands-on support to moms. In 1990, the American Academy of Pediatrics also stepped in, producing a statement opposing formula advertising. The WHO and UNICEF created the Baby Friendly Program in 2017 to promote breastfeeding in hospitals. The CDC developed programs to further support the Baby Friendly Program. But this still hasn’t changed America’s long-standing demand for baby formula.

Dr. Linda Dahl

Physician. Author of Tooth and Nail:The Making of a Female Fight Doctor & Better Breastfeeding, http://www.drlindadahl.com @doctorlindadahl