As the U.S. deals with a baby formula shortage, actress and author Bette Midler posted a tweet that led to a bit of a feeding frenzy on Twitter. On Thursday, Midler tweeted, “TRY BREASTFEEEDING! It’s free and available on demand,” in response to a holy oligopoly, Batman-tweet from Stephanie Ruhle, the host of The 11th Hour and a Senior Business Analyst for NBC News:
Midler’s tweet certainly didn’t go unnoticed on the Twittersphere and got quite a response, as in thousands of responses. One potential reason for the attention is that Midler is quite well-known for things ranging from singing “The Rose” and “Wind Beneath My Wings” to acting in movies such as Ruthless People and Beaches to advocating for LGBTQ+ rights. When a celebrity tweets anything, even if it’s about farting or art or both, it’s rare that no reaction will occur.
But another reason was probably the specific wording of Midler’s tweet and the fact that she was tweet-quoting Ruhle’s tweet, which had said, “The baby formula shortage reveals an amazing secret oligopoly: – 3 American companies control over 90% of the mkt – hugely restrictive regulations (thanks to big $ lobbying) prohibit foreign formulas. Name another industry/sector/product like this.” Ruhle’s tweet seemed to point to lack of competition in the industry as the “formula” behind the current shortage. After all, fewer manufacturers can mean fewer product options as well as higher prices, lower quality, and more vulnerable supply chains. That meant that a single event, such as a single baby formula plant being shut down as I covered for Forbes on February 18, could shake the entire industry and greatly contribute to an overall shortage. The resulting shortage has left many parents and caregivers with few other options, as Nina Shapiro, MD, recently pointed out for Forbes. You can’t simply throw some hot dogs, spaghetti, and kale into a blender and replicate the different nutrients that go into standard baby formula.
So is trying breastfeeding (or breastfeeeding with three “e’s”) indeed the answer to the baby formula shortage? Well, to quote a movie title from the year 2009, it’s complicated. On the one hand, major health organizations have indeed been trying to encourage more people to breastfeed. As a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website describes, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that “infants be exclusively breastfed for about the first 6 months with continued breastfeeding along with introducing appropriate complementary foods for 1 year or longer.” The World Health Organization (WHO) has a similar recommendation with one difference: “continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to 2 years of age or longer.”
Studies have shown that breast milk is superior to baby formula in many ways. Babies can absorb breastmilk better than they can formula. The nutrients in breast milk such as the different types of carbohydrates, proteins, and fat can result in better brain and nervous system development and better vision. Breast milk can have the natural immune protectants such as antibodies that baby formula simply won’t have and in turn can lead to fewer and less severe infections. In fact, the benefits of breastfeeding seem to extend well beyond the first six months of life. Babies who are breastfed babies have lower risks of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), asthma, allergic conditions, digestive issues, leukemia, diabetes, and obesity. In fact, there appears to be a correlation between length of breastfeeding and the amount of protection versus various illnesses and bad health outcomes. This association undoubtedly doesn’t extend forever as breastfeeding beyond certain ages may be a bit, shall we say, unusual.
That being said, in general, it’s probably better to avoid pairing up anything with the word “breast” with the words “available on demand.” Breasts are not latte machines or streaming media. You can’t simply turn them on when they are needed. People don’t simply have BOD, breastmilk on demand, or perhaps BMOD. For example, the following responses to Midler’s tweet emphasized that not everyone can produce enough breast milk:
Lack of breast milk is especially an issue when you’ve got a male order caregiver so to speak. As some Twitterers emphasized, the primary caregivers for an infant can be men too. And getting men to breastfeed can be quite a challenge.
Others, such as writer Allison Floyd, pointed out problems with mastitis:
Mastitis is inflammation of the breast tissue often caused by an infection. It can leave parts of the breast red, swollen, and inflamed, three words that don’t go together with breastfeeding very well.
Then there were the folks who questioned the “breastfeeding is free” statement. As anyone who has posted for free on Facebook should know, nothing in life is free. And there’s no such thing as a free lunch, even when you are an infant. Unless you have somehow constructed a time machine out of a DeLorean (or Tesla, for that matter), breastfeeding does take time. For example, here’s how music writer Caryn Rose responded:
Looks like Midler noticed the many responses to her tweet when she subsequently tweeted, “People are piling on because of former tweet,” and offered further clarification:
In this follow-up tweet, Midler emphasized, “No shame if you can’t breastfeed, but if you can & are somehow convinced that your own milk isn’t as good as a ‘scientifically researched product’, that’s something else again.” She added that “The monopoly news is news to me, tho, no lie,” and concluded with the hashtag #WETNURSES.
OK, in this case, a wet nurse presumably doesn’t refer to a nurse who’s been caught in a rainstorm. Historically, a wet nurse has meant someone who breastfeeds someone else’s child. It’s always nice to have someone around who can do what you aren’t able to do. However, this hashtag didn’t go over too well either since many people may not have the resources to find or hire such a wet nurse. Plus, some like Gayle Choojitarom referenced a tweet thread from Brigitte Fielder, PhD, an Associate Professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison, who described how the U.S. has a history of Black slaves being required to breastfeed the children of their masters:
All of these Twitter exchanges show how complex the baby formula shortage is and how there isn’t a single seemingly simple formula to solving this problem. The whole baby formula industry rose out of a real need: to provide a viable alternative to breastfeeding. As is often the case where money is involved, the industry may not have evolved in a way to best serve the needs of parents and children. At the same time, baby formula shouldn’t be the only available method of overcoming many existing breastfeeding challenges that a wide, diverse range of people continue to face. You can’t assume that everyone has the same situation and access to the same resources. You also can’t assume that society will stay the same and that “formulas” that may have worked in the past will work in the future. Telling people to miss work or get help is not a viable solution unless it’s followed by something like, “and don’t worry, I’ll pay for everything.”