Bette Midler breastfeeding tweet upsets moms amid formula crisis

Amid a worsening nationwide baby formula shortage, Bette Midler tweeted out what she seemed to think was an easy, common-sense solution to parents’ struggle to feed their hungry infants.

The outspoken film and theater star declared Thursday evening that moms should just “TRY BREASTFEEDING. It’s free and available on demand.”

Whether breastfeeding truly is “free” turned out to be one of the points raised by many who didn’t respond favorably to Midler’s tweet. In fact, her tweet set off a cascade of reactions that showed the extent to which breastfeeding is a fraught issue for many women in the United States, with one person saying, “Please don’t be so cavalier about this.”

Respondents agreed that breastfeeding offers the best food for infants, packed with antibodies that protect them against many common childhood illnesses.

They also said that many women can’t breastfeed for various reasons, but wear themselves out physically and mentally trying. Others noted that many women lack social or economic support to pump milk or to take time off work in their baby’s early months to be available to feed on demand.

Amid the current crisis, it’s also not possible for a mother to suddenly start breastfeeding again if she already started her baby on bottle feeding and formula, as TV writer Amanda Deibert argued in a TikTok video shared on Midler’s feed.

“What’s really blowing my mind is the stupid way people have been reacting to this (shortage), like ‘Why can’t women just breastfeed?’”  Deibert said. “As if that’s just a thing all women can do, or a thing women can just turn back on when they haven’t been doing it for, say, three months or six months, and their baby’s been formula fed, or as if babies with allergies don’t exist, or as if babies who’ve been adopted don’t exist, or babies with single fathers, or same-sex fathers or a myriad other situations in which babies need formula to eat and live.”

Pamela Barroway, a freelance writer and editor urged Midler to “Please, please rethink this. Many of us, for many reasons, are unable to breastfeed, myself included.” Barroway explained she couldn’t breastfeed after a C-section and despite many visits from lactation consultants.

Author Ilyse Hogue added: “Bette, respectfully, this is a very bad take. I had twins. I didn’t produce enough milk for both. Without formula, I would have had to have chosen which one got to eat. To say nothing of kids that get separated from the birth mothers very young.”

Midler came back on Twitter several hours later to lament that people were “piling on.”

“No shame if you can’t breastfeed, but if you can & are somehow convinced that your own milk isn’t as good as a ‘scientifically researched product,’ that’s something else again,” Midler said.

The actor then indicated that she was just learning about “the monopoly” in baby formula manufacturing in the United States that has contributed to the shortage, but she seemed to cavalierly end her tweet with the hashtag #WETNURSES.”

Meanwhile, the discussion about Midler’s original tweet continued with a self-described “breastfeeding mom for 2 1/2 years,” pointing out that the practice is, in fact, not “free.”

“Good for baby? Yes. Free? Hell no.” tweeted Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of sociology at and medicine at Temple University. She  enumerated some of her expenses: “(1) Time- 3 hrs – 10hrs/day based on baby age & mom’s work (2) Breast pump & accessories ($250+) (3) Nursing bras, pads, clothes suitable for nursing, burp cloths ($300).”

Other respondents shared a Twitter thread by Clara Jeffery, editor in chief of Mother Jones, who said she spent a year, as a young reporter, investigating issues around breastfeeding and formula feeding.

Jeffery told Midler that she was “extremely, profoundly even, disappointed that you’re taking this line.”

While Jeffery agreed that breastfeeding has “lots of advantages,” especially in the first few weeks of a baby’s life, she explained why it is “hardly optimal OR EVEN POSSIBLE for many women.”

“Some women just can’t.” Jeffery said, adding that those women are “bullied into keeping trying and discouraged or shamed for using formula.”

Jeffery then detailed some of the economic and logistical barriers to breastfeeding.

“You work two part-time jobs to support your child(ren) AND you spend hours a day nursing? Come on,” Jeffrey tweeted.

“Breast pumps are expensive!” Jeffrey added. “Workplaces that support pumping with both privacy and schedule allowances are still far too rare. Do you think there’s a nursing room in the back of every McDonalds?”

“Breast pumps themselves “are heavy and bulky,” Jeffrey continued. “Try taking it to work on a bus, or if you have to walk long distances. Do you think most women can afford to have two and leave one at work? That they have a secure space to lock it up? No.”

Carla Cevasco, an assistant professor at Rutgers University who studies the history of food, the body, gender, and race in early America, also joined the discussion prompted by Midler’s tweet. She hit back at the idea that babies only consumed breast milk and “everything was great” before the rise of commercial formula in the 1950s.

“Throughout history, people have at times needed to feed infants using foods other than breastmilk,” Cevasco began her Twitter thread. “Sometimes the birthing parent was unable to breastfeed. Because: death in childbirth, or physical/mental health concerns, or need to return to work outside the home right after childbirth, OR their partner or enslaver forced them not to breastfeed so that they could return to fertility ASAP after giving birth.”

If no lactating caregiver was available, the baby would have to thrive on alternative diets, Cevasco tweeted. Early Europeans fed infants a mixture of animal milk or water, bread crumbs or flour, while women of the Waknabi people in North America in the 18th century fed infants a mixture boiled walnuts, cornmeal and water.

Unfortunately, Cevasco said, these milk substitutes weren’t always safe or nutritionally complete and many babies died from illness or starvation.

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