High breastfeeding rates and excellent support may be easing baby formula shortages in Colorado

June 9, 2022
Mothers get support at the hospital and at home with breastfeeding, and that support could be helping to ease the baby formula shortage in Colorado. Photo: Getty Images.
Mothers get breastfeeding support at the hospital and at home. That support could be helping to ease the baby formula shortage in Colorado. Photo: Getty Images.

High breastfeeding rates in Colorado may be reducing the severity of the baby formula shortage here.

Colorado recently posted some of the lowest “out-of-stock” rates for baby formula across the U.S., meaning it’s easier to get baby formula in Colorado than in other states.

Nationally, the out of stock rates for baby formula averaged about 74% last week and had soared as high as 90% in some states, according to Bloomberg and the firm, Datasembly, But, Coloradans fared among the best in the nation with out-of -stock rates hovering at about 44%.

Excellent breastfeeding support in Colorado helps new mothers all the time but is especially crucial now for two reasons: first, to help parents reduce stress related to baby formula shortages and second, to help moms pass along antibodies in breastmilk that fights COVID-19 infections.

A relief during baby formula shortage: Breast milk ‘never recalled or not on the shelf’

For decades, Colorado has achieved some of the best breastfeeding rates in the country. According to the most recent data available from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 92% of new moms in Colorado start breastfeeding, and Colorado ranks among the top four states in the U.S. for breastfeeding initiation.

UCHealth nurses, lactation specialists and doctors who assist new moms are hearing from plenty of women who are eager to succeed at breastfeeding so they’ll have their own safe, steady supply of milk.

“Breast milk is perfect for your baby. It’s always readily available. It’s never recalled or not on the shelf,” said Kimberly Thompson, a registered nurse and certified lactation specialist at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital on the Anschutz Medical Campus.

“Moms know all about the shortages. They tell us, ‘I need to be able to breastfeed,’” Thompson said.

New parents are already anxious these days, having dealt with pregnancy during a pandemic. The formula shortages only accentuate their worries.

“It’s terrifying. I can’t imagine not being able to get food for my baby,” Thompson said.

Amid the formula shortage, breast milk provides an excellent, healthy option.

“Even those who can’t directly breastfeed can maintain a milk supply,” Thompson said. “It freezes for up to a year.”

Baby-Friendly hospitals commit to helping new parents succeed with breastfeeding

University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora is one of three UCHealth hospitals — along with Memorial Hospital Central and Memorial Hospital North in Colorado Springs — that have earned the prestigious “Baby-Friendly” designation, meaning that hospital staff members undergo rigorous training to support breastfeeding.

Among the key pledges that “Baby-Friendly” hospital staffers make:

  • Facilitating skin-to-skin contact for moms and newborns during the “golden hour” immediately after birth.
  • Providing immediate and ongoing support so moms and newborns can learn how to breastfeed.
  • Not giving newborns water or other fluids aside from breastmilk unless medically necessary.
  • Enabling mothers and infants to stay together in the same room to improve bonding and allow newborns to attempt to breastfeed multiple times each day so they can stimulate the mother’s milk supply.
  • Providing new parents with breastfeeding information and support after they leave the hospital.

Lactation specialists provide essential support and are on duty at hospitals seven days a week, including holidays.

“Since we’re Baby-Friendly, all of us have had a lot of training,” Thompson said. “We’re seeing all of our patients and checking in. If the baby is not doing great, we help the moms pump to protect their supply of breastmilk.”

Time is of the essence: Breastfeeding works best when moms, babies start during ‘golden hour’ after birth

Thompson said it’s ideal for moms to begin breastfeeding as soon as possible after birth. For moms who are too sick to put their infants to the breast, lactation nurses help them pump their milk. To preserve the milk supply, new moms need to begin breastfeeding or pumping milk as quickly as possible.

In order to keep producing enough milk, women need to either breastfeed or pump frequently every day.

“You can’t pump once a day,” she said.

Thompson is honest with new parents, all of whom are exhausted. Caring for newborns is a tough round-the-clock job, regardless of whether a woman is breastfeeding or using bottles and baby formula. Getting going with breastfeeding is a most challenging part.

“During the first couple of weeks, it’s a lot. You need to breastfeed your baby about 8 to 10 times a day. Then the milk comes in. It’s made especially for you and your baby. The baby’s weight is going to be better. They’re not getting overfed.  After a couple of weeks, it gets much easier. Breastfeeding is great if it works for you,” Thompson said.

Thanks to breastfeeding experts, help is available once babies and moms go home

Once newborns and their parents go home, breastfeeding support and education continue with free telehealth visits.

“We try to give them as much support and education as we can in the hospital. Then we send them home with resources to succeed. Part of being Baby-Friendly is giving moms a way to access outpatient help,” Thompson said.

The online breastfeeding support visits increased during the early days of the pandemic when women were giving birth and leaving hospitals as quickly as possible. Virtual visits have remained popular with parents who are having breastfeeding challenges, Thompson said.

“They can start with telehealth, and if they need to be seen in person, they can come to our outpatient locations,” she said.

Why breastfeeding and breast milk are so healthy

When mothers need some encouragement to get through tough days after the birth of a baby, Thompson, her colleagues and doctors who treat moms and babies share information about the many benefits of breastfeeding and breast milk.

“Both moms and babies benefit. It’s natural. Mom’s milk is exclusively made for her baby and all of immunities pass to the baby. Breast milk is very protective. It decreases ear infections,” Thompson said.

Added Dr. Christine Gold, a pediatric hospital medicine doctor who cares for patients at University of Colorado Hospital: “Breastfeeding is one of the healthiest choices you can make for your baby. We see a decreased risk of infections in infancy. And there’s a lot of research on the gut microbiome.”

Both moms and babies benefit, said Gold who is also an assistant professor of pediatrics and pediatric hospital medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

She said the “Baby-Friendly” commitment and policies help patients and staff members alike.

“We’ve done a really good job in that first ‘golden hour’ of doing skin-to-skin contact and breastfeeding right away,” Gold said. “We’ve delayed bathing and we promote bonding.”

As the formula shortage has worsened, Gold said she has heard more women speaking about their desire to breastfeed.

“That puts less stress on families. If we can help these families get off the ground with breastfeeding, they will be less affected by the formula shortage,” Gold said.

She always encourages new parents to get as much help as possible from nurses and lactation pros like Thompson and her colleagues while they’re still in the hospital.

“There are so many people to help. Now is the best time to get great help and support from experts,” she said.

Breastfeeding recommended for moms with COVID-19

Some women are unable to breastfeed. Some don’t have family support or support from their employers. Others may have health conditions that prevent them from successfully breastfeeding. Adoptions also factor in.

Gold also works with mothers who are dealing with substance use disorders and drugs. Because alcohol and drugs can pass from mother to baby, in some circumstances, it’s unsafe for these mothers to feed their milk to their babies. But Gold has found that the powerful love parents feel for newborns can motivate some to seek treatment. If patients with substance use challenges pump their milk, they can preserve a supply until they can get clean and sober.

Some patients who are HIV-positive also can’t breastfeed, Gold said.

But other sick patients can breastfeed.

If a mom has had a difficult birth and needs to be in the Intensive Care Unit, lactation experts will visit her there.

“The lactation department travels all over the hospital. If they want to breastfeed, we will help, as long as we’re in the milk-making window,” Thompson said.

During the pandemic, experts also learned that antibodies to COVID-19 pass through breastmilk and help newborns stay healthy.

Because University of Colorado Hospital is the only academic medical center in Colorado, many of the sickest patients in the state get treated at the hospital. That includes many pregnant women who have gotten perilously ill with COVID-19.

At first, experts didn’t know if newborns would be safe having close contact with moms who were sick with COVID-19. But nurses and doctors now know that infants do especially well if their moms breastfeed them.

“We highly encourage moms with COVID-19 to breastfeed,” Thompson said. “If the mom is symptomatic, we encourage her to wash her hands before feeding and to wear a mask. But the mom’s body is making immunities. That baby is getting protection through the breastmilk to the exact virus that the mom has.”

Breastfeeding is also safe for moms with the flu or other illnesses.

“The infant probably has already been exposed. If you’re sick, you were probably infectious three or four days ago when you were loving and kissing the baby,” Thompson said. “If you’re symptomatic you could wear a mask and wash your hands, but breastfeeding is safe.”

Most importantly, Thompson and her colleagues encourage all moms to try to get rest, enjoy their babies, and reach out for help as needed.

“We help teach mothers normal newborn behaviors, including feeding cues and expectations for the first week and beyond,” she said. “We highly encourage skin-to-skin time to promote bonding and to help mothers get to know their babies. Motherhood can be hard, so having education and adequate support systems in place can reduce stress some mothers may experience.”

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Colorado native. She attended Colorado College, thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation, and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summer breaks from college. She is also a storyteller. She loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as a journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and was a finalist with a team of reporters for the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of a deadly wildfire in Glenwood Springs in 1994. Katie was the first reporter in the U.S. to track down and interview survivors of the tragic blaze, which left 14 firefighters dead.

She covered an array of beats over the years, including the environment, politics, education and criminal justice. She also loved covering stories in Congress and at the U.S. Supreme Court during a stint as the Rocky’s reporter in Washington, D.C.

Katie then worked as a reporter for an online health news site before joining the UCHealth team in 2017.

Katie and her husband Cyrus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, have three children. The family loves traveling together anywhere from Glacier National Park to Cuba.