I will start off by stating the obvious that human lactating persons are NOT cows nor should one compare such a person to a cow.
That being said, nowhere is lactation and milk supply management studied quite as closely as when it comes to dairy cows and other mammals. Dairy farmer’s lives revolve around this, and so as a result, it makes up a large part of studying something like say, dairy management. Everything, from feed, housing design, disease management, biosecurity, breeding, all of it is with one goal in mind – optimizing milk production. There are a lot of lessons from this that are applicable when considering the question of whether proposing breastfeeding as a reasonable solution to the formula shortage.
Spoiler: IT’s NOT.
Applicable lessons on Milk Production from a Farming Student:
- Lactation is controlled by hormones. When the milk supply dries up, it can only be restarted through birth or by using hormone injections, which can take time and doesn’t always work and is also not an option for everyone. For example, use of bovine hormones to generate milk production in dairy cattle is not permitted).
How it Applies: If the baby wasn’t being breastfed previously, its not just an easy thing to start breastfeeding after milk supply dries up.
- Production Capacity is highly individual and has a genetic component (in Cows interestingly it’s linked to bulls actually if I remember correctly). The dairy farm will have cows that produce only a fraction of what the highest producers do, and this is in a breed that was specifically bred for milk production.
How it Applies: Not every person is able to produce enough milk to adequately feed their child and need to supplement for their child to survive.
- A lot of things can cause a milk supply to drop or dry off: disease, injury, stress, lack of nutrition, and insufficient clean water are just some examples. Milk supply will also go down with age.
How it Applies: There are a variety of things that could cause someone’s milk supply to drop, stop, or never come in to begin with.
High levels of stress, not having adequate access to nutrition, can similarly prevent persons from producing sufficient milk necessary, and can impact yield. Places without consistent access to water (like say Flint, MI), may lead to dehydration among poorer individuals causing them to be unable to produce sufficiently. It’s worth noting that this will disproportionately affect people with less support and/or resources.
- Medication and certain diseases can contaminate milk. When medication is administered, the milk is subjected to a withdrawal time, which is a set period of time during which any milk produced by the treated animal is not added to the main tank. This is the amount of time necessary for there to no longer be traces of medication in the milk.
How it applies: People who require certain medication to survive or manage conditions might be unable to safely breastfeed. Similarly, if they catch an illness, they may have to stop breastfeeding to prevent the infection from spreading to the baby.
- Milk yield will drop off over time, with highest production occurring a short while after initial start of production and then gradually drop off over time. To go back to full yield, you have to get the cow impregnated, dry her off, and wait for her milk to come in with the next birth.
How it Applies: Once again, yield is so hugely variable that it’s really not a reliable option. We forget that historically certain classes hired wet-nurses to provide additional nutrition, or forced their slaves into it.
- Nutrition and what is being eaten is a huge component of milk production. Grains can increase milk yield for example, but too many can cause acidosis which in turn can cause a huge drop in production. It’s a delicate balance.
How it Applies: The formula shortages have a high impact on low-income families who may not have the resources and money to be able to travel around to find availabilities in the same way, and cannot afford marked up prices. These same families may not have consistent access to the right food to encourage good milk production.
- Milking takes a huge toll on the producing animal. Cows for example will lose body condition (weight) during the process. Calcium will leach from their bones if not sufficiently available. Milk fever is a thing, as are other conditions like mastitis that develop due to the process of milking. It’s a physically intensive process. In Dairy farming, the cow has farmers and farm hands to look out for her wellbeing and doing everything possible to make sure she is happy, healthy, and comfortable.
How it Applies: It’s just as intensive on humans. It takes real physical resources, and time. For some women it can be painful and unpleasant. For some it’s just not possible. A significant number of breastfeeding people don’t have the level of support that would make breastfeeding possible to sustain.
Lactation whether in dairy animals or in humans is not just a simple thing. We have this assumption that just because something occurs naturally, that the process is simple and works properly every time. The reality is much more complicated than that.
Death and infant mortality occur in nature all the time. Failure to Thrive is one of the terms given to animals who cannot feed adequately, either due to an internal inability or because there isn’t enough milk for them.
Even in farming, we use formula to supplement since milk may not always be available. We even have replacement colostrum for emergencies.
Breastfeeding can be a great thing when it’s a possibility, but it’s not simple and it’s not free the way people imagine. It is absolutely not a solution to the formula shortage because formula is literally a solution to the problems with breastfeeding.