Food Historian Carla Cevasco Explains Why Breastfeeding Isn't The Answer To The Infant Formula Shortage - Exclusive

The current infant formula shortage in the United States has many parents stressed and worried about how they're going to feed their babies. This concern has confused some, who point out that breastfeeding is the most natural and accessible option for feeding infants.

However, food historian Carla Cevasco, who is also a professor of American Studies at Rutgers, insists that breastfeeding isn't the solution for the formula shortage. Her research into how Americans, both Indigenous and those of European descent, have fed their babies and children and dealt with hunger throughout history definitively shows that birthing parents have always struggled with breastfeeding. Cevasco's research has also uncovered the devastating consequences of not being able to find safe and nourishing alternatives to breast milk.

In an exclusive interview with Health Digest, Cevasco talked about how birthing parents struggled with breastfeeding in early America, how they nourished their children when they couldn't do so, and why the advice of "just breastfeed" doesn't work during the infant formula shortage.

Finding safe alternatives to breast milk is not a new problem

Cevasco pointed out that parents in early America did not have the luxury of safe, easily accessible breast milk alternatives.

"Throughout history, some people have always struggled to breastfeed, and families have always needed alternative foods to feed infants," Cevasco explained. "Before current food safety standards or understandings of nutrition, these foods were not necessarily safe or sufficient for healthy development, and infant mortality rates were much higher than they are today. So, access to modern formula has saved infants' lives."

If mothers who couldn't breastfeed had a friend or relative who was doing so for their children, they could ask these people to breastfeed their baby as well. Wealthy parents often had wet nurses, people who were paid or forced to breastfeed the babies of wealthy families. Cevasco stressed that wet nursing was an extremely exploitative practice as wet nurses were very often slaves who had lost babies but were still lactating, or slaves who were forced to prioritize breastfeeding the slaveowner's babies instead of their own.

Parents who didn't have anyone else to rely on for breast milk had to turn to dangerous methods, like making their own baby formula. These formulas were often unsafe or not nutritionally balanced, and babies who were fed these homemade concoctions often died.

Breastfeeding is not always the answer

Cevasco emphasized that breastfeeding is not, and cannot, be an option for all parents. "There are a lot of reasons why people may be unable to breastfeed," she said. "Maybe mom is physically unable to do it, or doesn't produce enough milk, or needs to take a medication that is not safe for breastfeeding. Maybe mom just doesn't want to breastfeed! Maybe the infant has trouble latching because they are a preemie or have tongue-tie or other challenges."

She went on to say that there are also significant structural issues that make it hard for birthing parents to breastfeed. "A major issue in the United States is lack of paid parental [leave]," Cevasco explained. "Breastfeeding or pumping is time-intensive, and a lot of families struggle to balance that time with returning to the workforce ... Working class people do not have access to the same kinds of support and are more dependent on formula as a result."

So, breastfeeding can't be the sole solution for the current infant formula shortage, especially for low income families, Cevasco insisted. She also stressed that making baby formula from DIY recipes is not a safe solution and urged parents to consult with their pediatricians to find safe and nutritionally complete alternatives to breast milk and formula while the shortage continues.

For more insight into Cevasco's work, visit her website.