For these LI moms, 'just breastfeed' not the solution to infant formula shortage

With a nationwide infant formula shortage sending Long Island parents on panicked hunts for their baby’s food, many are also being confronted with the question, “Why not just breastfeed?”

But while the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants be exclusively breastfed for their first six months, doing so is not always an option, even for those parents who want to breastfeed.

Parents like Leigh Ann Piscitello of Farmingdale, who underwent a double mastectomy at 29, five years before she gave birth to her son.

Lack of breast tissue development and hormonal dysfunction can also contribute to a woman’s inability to breastfeed, said Tania Alicea, a midwife at Stony Brook Medicine and facilitator of the Stony Brook Breastfeeding Support Group.

Or moms like Nicole Wolff of West Islip, for whom breastfeeding may have been the goal but — despite their best efforts — their bodies could not produce enough milk to feed their children.

“Sometimes it’s easy but often times it’s not,” Alicea said. “Many mothers are not well-supported or are not sure of what resources are out there to help them meet their goals.”

And for some moms, like Alexa Palacios-Pierre of Massapequa Park, they find that their babies have trouble digesting breast milk. For others, their children cannot latch.

For these and many other reasons, parents choose to feed their babies formula. As the struggle to find their children’s food continues, with a possible end in sight, we profile three Long Island mothers about why breastfeeding was not feasible for their families.

Leigh Ann Piscitello, 34, Farmingdale

'It really didn’t bother me at the time. I thought formula would be readily available.'

After having a double mastectomy, she knew breastfeeding would not be an option but was confident her 4-month-old son, Peter, would be fine on a formula diet.

Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Leigh Ann Piscitello, who like several women in her family has a genetic mutation of the BRCA 2 gene, was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 29. Her only chance for survival was to undergo a double mastectomy to remove all her breast tissue and nipples, which she did.

“I was so young, wasn’t married, was single, living by myself. I was scared of what lay ahead,” she recalled. “But I really trusted my surgeons and I have a really strong support system.”

Fast forward five years, Piscitello is living in Farmingdale with her husband Bart and 4-month-old son, Peter. She always knew breastfeeding would not be an option for her children, but also felt confident her baby would be fine on a formula diet.

“My thought was, ‘I’m just happy to be here and have a son,’” she said. “It really didn’t bother me at the time. I thought formula would be readily available.”

Leigh Ann Piscitello, of Farmingdale, with her son Peter.

Leigh Ann Piscitello, of Farmingdale, with her son Peter. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

But Piscitello, a chemist at Estee Lauder’s Melville plant, has struggled to locate Enfamil Sensitive for her son. Her family and friends have rallied, finding formula mostly through Facebook groups, and she now has several weeks’ worth of supplies.

Still, it’s been a “nightmare” worrying about that while grappling with learning how to be a mom. She also suffered from post-partum hemorrhaging and preeclampsia.

For anyone shaming non-breastfeeding mothers amid the shortage, she reminds them she physically does not have a choice.

“I just think it is extremely ignorant and it usually comes from men who have no business having an opinion on the matter,” she said. “I think it’s ridiculous.”

Nicole Wolff, 36, West Islip

'Whatever I did, my body did not produce enough breast milk.'

To find formula for her 4-month-old daughter Joey, she has driven from Seaford to Riverhead, picking up donations from moms coordinated through social media groups.

Credit: Newsday/ Alejandra Villa Loarca

Nicole Wolff tried to breastfeed both of her children, 2-year-old son Milo and 4-month-old daughter Joey.

She ate oatmeal, thought by many to boost milk supply. She drank lactation teas. She chugged water. She pumped constantly.

On her most successful attempt she pumped four ounces of breast milk for her daughter, about enough for one bottle. Most times, she barely produced any milk at all.

“There’s no physical reason I shouldn’t be able to produce, but my body just doesn’t,” she said. “Whatever I did, my body did not produce enough breast milk.”

It left her tired, depleted and frustrated. When she returned to her work-from-home job as a billing specialist last month, she gave up trying.

“I can’t sit there on a video call with a pump attached to my breast, it doesn’t work that way,” she said.

Nicole Wolff and her 4-month-old daughter, Joey, at their West...

Nicole Wolff and her 4-month-old daughter, Joey, at their West Islip home. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Even before the shortage, she felt ashamed and that she had failed as a mother because she couldn’t breastfeed, even though 15-pound Joey is now thriving on a diet of Similac Advance.

To find her daughter’s formula, she has driven from Seaford to Riverhead, picking up donations from moms coordinated through social media groups. Fortunately, her job has allowed her time for the quests, she said.

As someone who struggles with anxiety, she warned that questions surrounding one’s decision to breastfeed can feel invasive.

“They say breast is best, I get that,” she said. “But what good is that going to do if my child is not fed?”

Alexa Palacios-Pierre, 31, Massapequa Park

'We had some really scary choking episodes. They weren't digesting the milk very well.'

Her 9-month-old twins, Luc and Ella, are in their “heavy eating phase,” requiring about 84 combined ounces of formula per day.

Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

At almost 9 months old, Alexa Palacios-Pierre’s twins, Luc and Ella, are in their “heavy eating phase,” requiring about 84 combined ounces of formula per day — a heavy burden for a mom working full-time.

Palacios-Pierre switched the babies to Enfamil Nutramigen at about four months because it was difficult to make enough milk for both babies — but also because they were struggling to keep down her milk.

“We had some really scary choking episodes. They weren't digesting the milk very well,” said Palacios-Pierre, a public relations professional. “At one point it made my son stop breathing. After the incident with my son, that was the last straw.”

Alexa Palacios-Pierre, of Massapequa Park, outside her home with her twins,...

Alexa Palacios-Pierre, of Massapequa Park, outside her home with her twins, Luc and Ella Pierre. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Palacios-Pierre and her husband Elysé know that the specialty formula is what’s best for their babies, even if the shortage has made it difficult to find. The burden of what Palacios-Pierre is facing as a new mom has made her double-down on her belief of a woman’s right to body autonomy.

“The irony of this happening during all of the issues with reproductive rights is very interesting,” she said, referring to the leaked draft of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that could potentially overturn Roe v. Wade. “We can’t feed the babies we have that are living, existing now and don't have the resources from the government at this moment to do that. How can we force people to carry through with births that they actually don't want?”

CONSIDERING BREASTFEEDING?

Relactation, in which a woman who previously breastfed restarts the process, is possible but it isn’t easy, said Tania Alicea, a midwife at Stony Brook Medicine and facilitator of the Stony Brook Breastfeeding Support Group. Those who consider it should know it takes time and commitment and they still might not be able to produce a full milk supply.

It is also possible for a non-gestational parent to lactate, but Alicea recommends that parents considering induced lactation seek the assistance of a lactation specialist for support.