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The baby formula shortage has rekindled a debate over the advantages and disadvantages of breastfeeding. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: When an Air Force C-17 landed in Indianapolis last weekend, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was on hand to welcome 78,000 pounds of infant formula that was rushed in from Switzerland.
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TOM VILSACK: I'm told that this shipment provides enough formula to take care of 9,000 babies and 18,000 toddlers for a week.
HORSLEY: And, Vilsack said, that's only the beginning. A second planeload of formula arrived on the East Coast a few days later.
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VILSACK: We're going to continue to look for ways in which we can expand supply and expand our capacity. We're going to take a look at the flexibilities, the ability to substitute more easily.
HORSLEY: Some observers say this worldwide hunt for formula would not be necessary, though, if the U.S. made more of an investment in a homegrown substitute - breast milk.
MELISSA BARTICK: If we did more to support breastfeeding, we wouldn't be in this mess.
HORSLEY: Melissa Bartick is a doctor and professor at Harvard Medical School. She's been studying and promoting the benefits of breastfeeding since running into hospital roadblocks trying to nurse her own child more than two decades ago.
BARTICK: I had suffered so much feeding my child that I didn't really think that anybody should have to suffer just to feed their child. I thought it would be sort of a maternity leave project, but here I am, 23 years later, still working on it.
HORSLEY: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that most babies be fed exclusively with breast milk for the first six months. But at last count, only about 1 in 4 babies born in the U.S. met that target. There are a variety of reasons families turn to supplemental formula or stop nursing altogether, but Bartick says aggressive marketing by formula makers is partly to blame.
BARTICK: The formula makers would just give tons and tons of free formula to the hospital to try to sell their brand and have the hospitals send mothers home with gift bags full of formula, so if they run into any problem at home, they just pop in a ready-to-feed bottle in the baby. And that starts the mother becoming dependent on formula.
HORSLEY: Some hospitals now prohibit formula giveaways. But Bartick says the manufacturers find creative workarounds.
BARTICK: Frankly, they have way, way more money than us, and we can't fight that.
HORSLEY: Half the formula sold in the U.S. is paid for by the federal government to support low-income families. Babies that receive that subsidized formula are less likely to ever breastfeed than those who don't. Since 2005, global formula sales have more than doubled to $55 billion.
Still, this year's shortage has put a harsh new spotlight on the formula industry. The Federal Trade Commission has launched an inquiry into how a handful of companies came to dominate the market. And some are calling for a more reliable way to keep babies fed.
KADEE RUSS: The breast is the shortest supply chain.
HORSLEY: Economist Kadee Russ of the University of California at Davis is quick to acknowledge not every parent can or wants to breastfeed. But 6 out of 10 mothers stop breastfeeding earlier than they'd like. Russ says there's too little training from health care providers, too few pumping options for mothers at work and too little family leave.
RUSS: It's a little bit demoralizing when you have a baby and you're talking to your friends, like, in these other countries. And they're going to have a year of leave to nurse their children, and you don't. It's not easy to breastfeed. Mothers need support. It's not an easy process. It's work.
HORSLEY: Dr. Bartick argues boosting breastfeeding rates would bring substantial health care savings since nursing babies suffer less from ear infections, diarrhea, obesity and other ailments. But Russ says building the economic case for breastfeeding requires a more inclusive kind of accounting.
RUSS: If you buy a formula, that goes into GDP as a transaction. Breastfeeding isn't. And, in fact, what may show up in national economic statistics is that you may be working less. I think that it's important to understand that breast milk is part of food systems. It is a supply chain in itself.
HORSLEY: Boosting breastfeeding rates won't solve the immediate formula shortage, but the memory of those empty store shelves may prompt some families to take a second look at formula's original competition.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.
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