parent opinion

"The pressure was intense." The conversation we're not having about formula shaming.

With the infant formula shortage in the US still at crisis point, I’ve watched on in horror as the damaging rhetoric which underlies deeply entrenched beliefs is exposed by privileged white men in suits standing in congress making statements like, 'Just breastfeed.'

If only it were that simple, and if only that kind of statement didn’t trigger familiar feelings of anxiety. 

If it can affect me that deeply 15,000 kilometres away in Australia, how distressing it must be for formula feeding parents faced with empty shelves and misinformed leaders making ignorant statements like these?

Watch: Questions about childbirth, answered by mums. Post continues below.


Video via Mamamia.

The current formula shortage in the US is thanks to a perfect storm of complexities around industry monopoly as well as contamination and supply chain issues. And while the pandemic has placed pressure on supply chains everywhere, here in Australia we aren’t contending with the myriad of additional issues the US has on such a scale that it puts actual babies' lives at risk. 

What their formula crisis has done, however, is to accelerate the conversation happening on the fringes of parenting forums, mother’s groups and water-coolers near you: that formula shaming is real and it’s just another way we set women up to be rivals. 

It is my belief that it is entirely possible to be both pro-breastfeeding AND anti formula-shaming. The two are not, and should not, be mutually exclusive. 

Pitting them against each other is damaging and can be a major contributor to mental health issues for post-natal women and men. 

Ten years ago, my daughter Kit was born in Adelaide. Diagnosed with a major congenital heart defect at the 20-week scan, my pregnancy was not a straightforward one. It was plagued with fear and anxiety as we went through rounds of tests and excruciating wait times.  

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After a traumatic birth, Kit was airlifted to Melbourne to undergo open heart surgery at two days old. I disengaged from the pregnancy the day they diagnosed her, out of self-protection. 

I didn’t allow myself to buy any baby supplies as I didn’t want to come home to a house full of baby goods with no baby. My brain, let alone my body, was not ready for the onset of motherhood.  

This disengagement had an enormous impact on my milk-supply. From the very first pump, my supply was low. Heartbreakingly low. 

I remember the absolute despair looking at the tiny amount of milk I’d collected. 'That cannot be it?' I thought. But every voice in the room told me 'breast is best and 'this is the one thing you can do for your sick baby'. 

So, despite having no baby (she was attached to machines in intensive care), I set my alarm for every three hours to pump.

Listen: Tegan and Leigh discuss the bottle and breastfeeding 'debate'. Post continues below.


I pumped like my life depended on it, but produced next to no milk. I was genuinely shocked to find that my body did not respond in the way I was told it would. My anxiety skyrocketed, so much so that I ended up in a separate hospital with exhaustion and a serious infection.

Encouraged by well-meaning midwives, I continued to pump depressingly small droplets of milk for weeks post-surgery. The pressure was intense and my physical and mental welfare suffered irreparably at a time that was already the most stressful of my life.

While Kit was always the priority, not one person considered my mental health.

Not one person suggested I be relieved of this incredible responsibility that I was failing at terribly. Not one person suggested breastfeeding doesn’t always go to plan. And ironically, not one person told me that whilst in hospital, my baby was being fed formula, anyway.

The health system couldn’t see that what my baby needed was me - physically and mentally present and able to deal with the current crisis and the trauma of the past nine months. 

Was I less of a "good mum" if that version was a formula feeding one? 

All the signs around me pointed to 'yes' as women are literally set up to fail. 

Women who give birth in the public system can be sent home in as little as four hours, days short of their milk coming in. Funding for lactation support services is not covered by Medicare. Maternity leave falls short of the recommended six-month exclusive breastfeeding target set for us. Yet formula is nearly always framed as a shameful, inferior option.

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Image: Supplied. 

Mothers are viewed primarily as caregivers, with our own needs secondary. From conception, we begin to lose agency over own body. You are told what prenatal vitamins to take. You are told you what to eat. You are told how your body should look pre and post-baby. You are told to breastfeed (and the potential ramifications if you don’t). 


But no-one mentions the 'F' word. And why is that? When so many of us so desperately need it?

I was tired of society's unhealthy insistence that formula is a last resort, inevitably framing it as shameful and saddling new parents with the unbearable weight of stigma and judgement. So 'mumamoo' was born, a formula company not owned by a faceless corporation but uniquely owned by four Australian mothers.

With eight kids between us, our feeding stories are all different - just like real life. We are the complete spectrum of feeding mums from exclusively breastfed to combo-fed to allergy babies to exclusively formula fed. And while 'fed is best' is great - it’s the bare minimum. Whatever you think of formula, the alternative is dire - so our core ethos is supported is best. 

Whether it’s the funding of lactation services, extending maternity leave or making workplaces more accommodating for breastfeeding mothers. Whether you have low supply, need to return to work or whether formula feeding is simply your choice. All parents deserve information and support.

Currently, support is merely lip-service - our culture verbalises support for breastfeeding but does little to support the actual demands of it. Worse, we have a health system that is reticent at best to discuss infant formula. 

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You will be hard pressed to be offered information or education about formula by your health professional, midwife or GP regardless of this being the only alternative to breastmilk - unless your baby has a severe allergy and requires a prescription for a specialised formula. 

Is it little wonder there is so much guilt, shame and stigma attached to formula feeding, or a very real correlation between this and the rates of postnatal anxiety and depression? Or that no-one talks about the grief associated with breast-feeding when it doesn’t work or when you have to give it up? This is why there needs to be a shift in the way we think and the way we frame our language around feeding. 

Let’s not be divided by a system that fails us and positions the suffering of women as a motherly virtue. Let’s acknowledge that breastfeeding is not actually free if we value a woman’s time and autonomy. 

Let’s not accept a woman’s mental health as an acceptable trade-off for breastfeeding. 

Let’s accept that breastmilk is indeed incredible and can be a beautiful experience for many, just as it can be the opposite experience for some. 

Let’s support breastfeeding when women choose to do it without stigmatising formula and the parents who use it. 

And let’s remember, regardless of how you feed - supported is BEST.

Belinda worked as a fashion stylist and e-commerce entrepreneur before co-founding mumamoo - a female-founded infant formula company that is 100 per cent Australian Made and owned by mums. You can  follow mumamoo on Instagram here.

One in five expecting or new parents will experience perinatal anxiety and/or depression. If this story raises issues for you, please contact the free national hotline PANDA (Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia) Mon-Fri 9am - 7:30pm AEST/AEDT 1300 726 306 or the  Gidget Foundation on 1300 851 758 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 

Mumamoo supports PANDA (Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia) by donating a percentage of online profits to support mental health initiatives for expectant and new parents.

Feature Image: Supplied.

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