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“I can’t bear to see these families giving their baby evaporated milk when they’re running out of formula.”

Chiara Sottile, a mom of two, was planning on weaning her 13-month-old son when a formula shortage sent a wave of panic across the nation. Several brands of infant formula were recalled. Contamination at the source had caused bacterial infections in some babies. Two infants even died.

So huge amounts of formula across several brands were pulled from the shelves. Parents all over the United States found themselves tossing multiple cans of infant formula in the trash—sometimes even their entire month’s supply.

When production also slowed due to manufacturers’ inability to source ingredients or packaging, stores started imposing limits on the number of cans of formula that parents could buy at one time. This sent shock waves into many communities: parents didn’t know if they’d be able to feed their babies from one day to the next.

Seeing an Opportunity to Do Good

(Insider)

That’s when Sottile realized that she was in a very privileged position. She had an oversupply of milk and a baby ready to be weaned. The San Francisco Bay Area news producer was also able to afford the $92 a month it cost to rent a breast pump.

So she did what she could to help. Sottile kept pumping and donating all her milk to those in need. She donated thousands of ounces of milk—not only to milk banks, but also directly to families in need.

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On one business trip, Sottile recalled, she pumped about 60 ounces of milk, which she kept on ice in a cooler bag. She struck up a conversation with yet another mom who was worried about the formula shortage and what it would mean for her baby. She tearfully explained how she was going to have to start feeding her baby evaporated milk. Sottile knew that she was at the right place at the right time.

“I opened up my little cooler bag and gave her the milk,” Sottile said. “She was stunned and grateful…you don’t expect someone to just hand over their breast milk.”

A Stressful and Dangerous Situation

Indeed, breast milk has been called “liquid gold” by many a parent. But many babies need infant formula to survive. Such is the case of adopted babies, babies and children with extreme allergies, babies whose mothers have a low supply or no supply at all, and children who have to be tube fed. Parents choose infant formula to feed their babies for a multitude of personal reasons and have always felt secure in their ability to feed their children. But the formula shortage turned that on its head and sent parents scrambling. 

Such was the case of a mother all the way across the country in Long Island, New York, who couldn’t find the specific brand of infant formula she needed to feed her five-month-old daughter Angelina. Jessica Booth tried pumping, but her milk supply dwindled quickly and the process was painful.

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“It’s stressful enough being a new mom, whether it’s your first, second, third child, or whatever—but this is an extra layer of stress,” she said.

Parents across the country echoed Booth’s sentiments. They told stories of driving around to a dozen different stores in a single day, with their babies in tow. Some would show up before stores even opened, but the shelves were still empty or the specific kind of formula their baby needed was not available. Indeed, forced switches in formula brands left many babies with gastrointestinal issues and even trips to the hospital.

The Gift of Sharing

(Insider)

Sottile felt angry that the system was failing parents nationwide. So when her son was ready to be weaned, she continued to pay the $92 a month breast pump rental charge and to donate her milk to those in need. 

“I’m paying to be a milk donor,” she said ruefully. “Originally, I was feeding my own son, but things have gotten so dire in this country, so how can I stop? I can’t bear to see these families giving their baby evaporated milk when they’re running out of formula.”

Sottile said that being able to share her milk is a gift. But it’s not always easy. She feels fortunate to be able to cover the monthly rental charge out of pocket, but it’s also a time issue, and the busy, working mom doesn’t have a lot of that.

Setting aside time to regularly pump in order to maintain supply means time spent away from her young family, taking multiple breaks at work, and pumping in less than ideal locations, like supply closets and airplane bathrooms.

But Sottile will continue donating her time, money, and breast milk as long as she can—and that’s a lifeline for many families.

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