Infants in Crisis: Is America Failing Its Most Vulnerable People?

by Safdar Butt
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There can be complete unanimity on the fact that infants (particularly premature ones) are the most vulnerable citizens of any country. However, it’s simultaneously fascinating to think that these vulnerable and tiny humans are the future of every society. 

As a baby’s life starts, they have no power over their economic and social environments, can barely voice their concerns in an intelligible manner, and are equally unarmed when it comes to protecting their physical and psychological health.

For at least the first couple of years of their lives, infants are entirely dependent on their primary caregivers for sustenance. Did you know that mother’s milk is also known as liquid gold? Breast milk consists of a unique mixture of hormones, enzymes, and nutrients that act as a complete meal for the baby to survive and grow without any complications or illnesses.

The more interesting fact is that breastfeeding is a direct protective factor against adult diseases, such as diabetes mellitus, arthritis, allergic asthma, and Celiac disease. Even the World Health Organization encourages infant breastfeeding for at least the first six months. However, it does not look like the US is vested in protecting its vulnerable members and their mothers. Sounds a bit odd? In this article, we will start from square one and understand how America is failing to preserve infant health.


Breastfeeding Rates Alarmingly Low

The Centers for Disease Control released its National Immunization Survey in which it was found that only 55.8% of mothers exclusively breastfeed their babies for the first six months of their life. The figures are even lower (35.9%) for one-year-old babies. Shockingly, it was also found that younger mothers (aged between 20 and 29 years) were far less likely to ever breastfeed compared to their elder counterparts (30 years and older).

Some of the most common reasons why women choose to not breastfeed at all or abandon the practice midway include –

  • Issues with milk production
  • Issues with baby latching
  • Concerns regarding the infant’s weight or nutrition
  • Certain medications that may affect the baby
  • Lack of parental leave due to strict work policies
  • Lack of family and social support
  • Unsupportive hospital practices

In some rare cases, women choose to not breastfeed due to body dysmorphia issues, fears of ruining their body’s aesthetics, etc. Health-related reasons are perfectly valid and not in the mother’s control. But what about work, hospital, and community-related reasons?

Can regulatory bodies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), World Health Organization (WHO), American Academy of Pediatrics, etc., not join hands to launch hospital and community initiatives that work in favor of new mothers? Breastfeeding is not always easy, but a gradual process where the mother and baby learn to bond with each other. Not to mention it is sometimes a painful process, but proper support can become a new mother’s source of encouragement. The same holds true for establishing motherhood-friendly work site accommodations and policies.

The Baby Formula Fiasco

The US Department of Health and Human Services does operate the Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding, but progress is too slow, given the falling rates of breastfeeding nationwide. This is one side of the coin. The other is to protect the interests of those mothers who cannot safely breastfeed their babies. Since we do not live in the era of wet nurses, can commercial baby formulas sufficiently meet a newborn’s nutritional needs?

Modern-day infant formulas have risen from their humble origins of boiled bovine milk. The top players in the formula market include Nestle (NANA), Mead Johnson (Enfamil), Abbott Laboratories (Similac), and Prolacta Bioscience (Prolacta). But the million-dollar question is how well they are faring against nature’s superfood. The scenario looks pretty grim for at least two major reasons –

1.      Massive Crisis

2022 was a wild and scary year for infant parents who formula or mix-feed their babies. The entire United States was reeling under a massive infant formula crisis due to supply chain blockades. That was just the tip of the iceberg (exposing the US’ inequitable food distribution system). The primary reason was a product recall at Abbott Laboratories’ Michigan facility due to Cronobacter Sakazakii bacterial contamination.

The first batch (where the FDA discovered the contamination) was thrown out. But just to be sure, Abbott Laboratories recalled 145,000 more cans of infant formula. When the facility was re-opened in June 2022 to restart production, heavy rains and flooding led to the plant shut down again. This snowballed the already crisis, and other companies were unable to handle the rising demand considering that Abbott holds 40% of the US baby formula market share.

Parents were desperate for help, and some retailers milked the situation for profits by raising formula prices by as much as 18%. This event continued into 2023 too, making it crystal clear that the US still lacks a sustainable food system, especially for its babies. To make matters worse, the FDA was treating this situation as an afterthought, announcing that nobody, in particular, would be held accountable for the formula shortages.

The FDA was rightfully criticized for its poor handling of the infant formula shortage. Was it the organization’s cruel way to make new mothers reconsider breastfeeding?


2.      Insensitive Marketing Ploy

The Congress and Biden administration have reassured parents that they are taking necessary measures to address the formula crisis. If that were the only problem, one could still put their hope in the US government. But, something way more sinister lurks behind formula manufacturers’ ‘noble’ intentions to feed the vulnerable populace.

The Cronobacter Sakazakii contamination was one issue that led to several infant deaths, but it appeared that the situation was well under control after the product recalls. But in the mad rush of this contamination and formula crisis, seldom did parents pay attention to a growing Enfamil Similac lawsuit, later consolidated into a class-action multi-district litigation in January 2022.

But what was this about? The lawsuit struck at the very intrinsic nature of baby formulas, manufactured using milk fortifiers and other additions to mimic human breast milk. They led to a rare gastrointestinal (deadly) disorder in babies, particularly premature and low-birth infants, called Necrotizing Enterocolitis (NEC). According to TorHoerman Law, victims’ parents are suing Mead Johnson and Abbott Laboratories for health injuries, lack of product warnings, and unfair use of deceptive marketing tactics.

The WHO even published a series of reports detailing the highly exploitative marketing ploy targeted at desperate and uninformed mothers.


From Formulas to Food: The Vicious Cycle Continues

Bloomberg conducted a study on 33 popular baby food brands across US stores to check their health profile, and the results were shocking. Almost every popular baby food brand nationwide was polluted with traces of heavy metals (lead, cadmium, mercury, and arsenic) that could easily impact an impressionable child’s brain, causing developmental and cognitive issues. Out of the 33 brands tested, 32 had at least two toxic heavy metals in their baby food products.

The FDA has known about this problem for years, and a 2021 investigation by Congress was followed by harsh criticism of the organization. Yet, little has changed in this area. Is this just gross negligence on the part of the Federal agency? Such findings compel one to wonder whether America is hell-bent on pursuing its babies to their early graves.  


The Way Forward

Just like the Harvard Medical School states – breast is best! However, mere demonization of formula will not support vulnerable mothers who cannot breastfeed for valid reasons. If the newborn is full-term with a healthy birth weight, mothers can practice mixed feeding (alternating between episodes of breastfeeding and formula feeding).

However, the same is not recommended for premature babes with low (less than five pounds) and very low (less than three pounds) birth weight. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that human milk lowered the incidence of NEC in babies, which was higher even in cases of mixed feeding.

The best option for mothers concerned about NEC issues is to feed milk from a trusted lactarium or milk bank. As long as the milk bank collects, stores, handles, and distributes milk hygienically and safely, there is little to worry about. The milk will meet the little one’s nutritional needs whilst protecting it against a deadly disorder like NEC.

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