This year has been difficult for the working moms who bring their children to my pediatrics practice and for career-driven women in general.
The hope of paid parental leave arriving anytime soon went down in a fiery blaze. Roe v. Wade was overturned, placing career-focused women of childbearing age everywhere at peril. Could the sky fall any faster? And, because it always can, even feeding babies was suddenly at risk, too.
The families I care for are scared and frustrated. They’re unsure if they’ll have the food they need to nourish their infants and, for those whose babies have specific dietary needs, they’re afraid they’ll have irreparable health problems as a result.
It can’t be overemphasized: Food shortages mean malnutrition, and malnutrition can lead to genuine health threats.
Deeper issues at play
When the formula shortage first arose, there was an outcry from some men who stated that women could fix this issue by simply breastfeeding their babies. Of course, this was ludicrous and naïve. Every mother knows that there is nothing “simple” about breastfeeding. It’s exhausting, it can be painful, and it can be highly inconvenient.
Breastfeeding can also significantly affect a woman’s mental health due to its all-consuming nature, especially in the first months. For many, the mental health impacts of breastfeeding are positive, but that’s not always the case.
Every woman should have the guilt-free ability to choose how to feed her baby. About 15% of babies are formula-fed from birth for many reasons, including just not wanting to breastfeed, all of which deserve our grace and compassion. Even as a board-certified pediatrician who believes strongly in the benefits of breastfeeding, I know and support countless moms who can’t or don’t for their own very personal reasons. Moms don’t need more guilt piled on top of them surrounding how they choose to feed their babies.
I spend a lot of my time reminding new parents that breastfeeding, or the lack of it, is only a tiny part of an entire picture of their parenting and their child’s feeding journey. Their decision to breastfeed or not doesn’t define them as a good or bad parent, or one who does or does not feed their baby well. It also doesn’t place them in the minority in the U.S.
Per the CDC, 84% of American babies are breastfed at birth. By three months, that number has fallen to about 50%, and it’s fallen to 25% by six months. We have lower levels of breastfeeding in the U.S. than in other countries. On average, globally, 40% of babies under six months are exclusively breastfed.
Why are we so far behind other countries when it comes to breastfeeding, and why do so many women start desiring to breastfeed and not continue?
An inexcusable lack of support for women
The lack of paid leave policies makes it exceedingly difficult for women to even heal correctly without being stressed to go back into the workplace right away. Without paid leave, many women don’t have the time and space to learn how to breastfeed effectively or get the rest they need for their bodies to take on this challenging task.
Once women are back at work, it’s tough to breastfeed your baby when you’re doing it by pumping at the workplace. When you have to go back to work and pump, it’s a time-consuming and cumbersome task that requires a flexible schedule with breaks and privacy. For low-wage workers, those luxuries are elusive.
Even as a pediatrician in a pediatrician’s office, I still had to deal with stigma from coworkers about having to take “breaks” so I could pump to breastfeed my child. I had to remind my superiors about the federal policies that we have in place surrounding breastfeeding that protected me.
Racial disparities in the workplace add to the more sinister side of this story. Black people and other minorities are more likely to work in low-wage jobs, which are much less likely to have the luxury of paid leave. Therefore, their rates of breastfeeding are much lower. At three months, 73% of white children in the U.S. are exclusively breastfed, while only 58% of Black children are. At six months, it’s 62% of white children and less than 45% of Black children. This means people of color are even more vulnerable to being affected by the formula shortage.
Inequities exist on a much greater scale for American working moms when it comes to structural and social support for breastfeeding, paid leave, and childbearing in general. Many pregnant women in this country who leave the workplace struggle against a gender pay gap that can haunt them their entire careers when they return.
When we choose to look at this formula shortage from a new angle, it brings to light the overarching unmet needs of working moms in the workplace, how moms need more flexible hours and remote work options, how managers and senior leaders need increased education about the burnout working moms face, and how on-site childcare would be a gamechanger for families.
We do know precisely what we need to do to support moms: treating their human needs as real–not as a burden in the corporate space. When we support women through the “baby” phase of their lives and careers instead of punishing them, the return on investment can be massive: How a woman is treated in that childbearing moment will influence whether she wants to stay in a position, company, or even in the workforce at all.
Whitney Casares, MD, MPH, FAAP, is a board-certified pediatrician, author, speaker, and full-time working mom. She is the author of “The New Baby Blueprint: Caring for You and Your Little One” and “The Working Mom Blueprint: Winning at Parenting without Losing Yourself.” Dr. Whitney hosts the Modern Mommy Doc Podcast and is the founder and CEO of the Modern Mamas Club App.
The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.
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