Breast, bottle, whatever: How You Feed is a shame-free series on how babies eat.
Laura Modi winces at the memory. "I'm only beginning to get the confidence to say this now, but I lied," she says. "I lied to my pediatrician."
Parents who receive its monthly bundles of organic, European-inspired formula will no doubt recognize Modi as the brains behind Bobbie, the only female-founded and mom-led infant formula company in the U.S. While Modi's professional resume includes stretches at Google Finance and Airbnb, her ascent to baby formula trailblazer can really be traced back to her experience as a first-time mom "riddled with guilt" as she stood in the aisle of her pharmacy, surveying the formula options she needed to feed her baby because she couldn't breastfeed. Modi remembers thinking that her body had failed her, and that shame kept her from opening up to her child's doctor about the realities of her nursing struggles.
"One of the questions they ask is 'OK, tell me, how is breastfeeding going?'" Modi tells Yahoo Life. "But I'm sitting there sweating [and thinking] I haven't been breastfeeding for a month. But that's a very direct question, so I better tell them it's going OK. And I remember doing that two or three times, and walking away feeling like, why did I just lie to my pediatrician?
"I should have said, 'I'm feeding my baby formula,'" she says now. "But I didn't feel the permission to do so. I wasn't asked the question that opened it up, and instead I just decided to give her an answer that I think she expected or wanted to hear — and it didn't improve the situation at all."
Modi came away from the experience wishing that the language around feeding conversations was less couched in shame and presumption, so that new parents could feel comfortable expressing themselves in an honest manner. Recalling her despair as she weighed her options in the formula aisle — where cans were stacked alongside diapers and baby bottles — she also saw an opportunity for a better shopping experience and ingredients she felt more confident about feeding her baby.
"The first thing I wanted to change, and it has always been rooted in the DNA of this company, was the feeling I should feel better about what I'm buying," Modi says. "I should feel better about my decision. I should feel better about my choices walking in as a new mother. I should walk away with confidence and less comparison. Obviously it's table stakes to have a better product; it's table stakes to make sure that the experience is better. But most importantly, for my mental health, I needed to feel good about this choice — and I didn't."
Modi and co-founder Sarah Hardy launched Bobbie in 2021, quickly establishing themselves as a subscription-based service providing parents with organic infant formula that meets nutritional standards set by both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Union (which, the Ireland-born Modi notes, updates its guidelines much more regularly than the FDA). Last summer, Bobbie released its first campaign, How is feeding going?, in which celebrity parents including Tan France and Kelly Stafford opened up about why formula worked best for their families and should be destigmatized. This June, it was announced that France, alongside supermodel Ashley Graham, Oscar-winning Laura Dern and editor and TV host Elaine Welteroth, would join the brand's first MotherBoard, an annual collective of "activist parents" pushing for change in the formula industry, including a move away from the judgment that families so often encounter. (To quote the Bobbie website: "We support every parent’s unique feeding journey with each unique baby whether they choose to exclusively breastfeed their baby until they are 5, turn to formula on day one, get donor milk from a milk bank, pump around the clock for every ounce or just top up a night bottle with a bit of formula. Bobbie understands that there is no one size fits all plan for feeding a baby. Period.")
Given the pandemic-related supply chain backups and an FDA recall hitting several name-brand powdered formulas that resulted in dire formula shortages this spring — and, indeed, a continued cap on formula purchases at many retailers across the country — there's no better time for that change. Because of its direct-to-consumer model, Bobbie was in a unique position during the crisis. As grocery store shelves lay bare, the brand's existing subscribers were still able to get their monthly deliveries of formula. Early on, new Bobbie subscriptions flourished, so much so that the brand had to stop taking on new customers rather than risk being unable to guarantee supplies for everyone; the waitlist to join currently remains at capacity. Despite the increased demand and a new appreciation for alternatives to store-bought formula, Modi notes that "it has been a very challenging few months."
"I don't think any formula company was immune to dealing with some part of this crisis," she says. Modi recalls one of her analysts approaching her at the start of the formula crisis and pointing out their skyrocketing figures.
"She's staring at this going, 'Growth is really moving fast and our ability to be able to supply the market at the rate that we are growing — something's gonna hit,'" Modi says. "So we made a very tough decision early on to say, 'let's stop growing the business until we can get to a place where we can produce more product to serve more customers. My only priority right now is to have enough formula to feed babies on Bobbie.' So as you can imagine, all of this growth was happening. And within the first week of the crisis, we doubled our customer count and we decided the number of customers that we have — which is 70,000 babies in every state across this country — we made the decision that right now we need to produce enough formula while we deal with this crisis to serve those babies and give those parents peace of mind.
"We could have kept growing," she continues, "and just kind of put a finger in the air and [said] 'let's see how things go,' but we would've been in this risky position, then, of maybe going through too much inventory to not serve those already on Bobbie. And that wasn't [a decision] we were willing to make."
While Bobbie isn't taking on new subscriptions at this time, parents eager to try their organic formula — featuring ingredients like grass-fed milk from pasture-raised cows, plant-based oils and DHA — now need only head to their nearest Target. This summer, in the throes of the formula shortage, the brand announced that its long-in-the-works partnership with the big-box retailer would see its product roll out online and in stores nationwide. Modi cautions that retail shoppers won't have the same stock guarantees as Bobbie subscribers, though the CEO is proud to offer a more ad hoc alternative to parents who can "pick up a can as you need it."
"We were a few months into launching the business and our subscribers were banging down our door saying, 'Hey, can we get you on shelf? What if I need to pick up a can between subscriptions or if I'm traveling or I happen to be short?'" she says. "Even for our subscribers, they need a feeling that they can just go to Target and pick it up."
While it's hard to predict where the infant formula industry is headed after this tumultuous past year, Modi would like to see more innovation in terms of ingredients and the latest science, something she feels the United States is "missing the mark" on overall. And as a mother who knows the complexities of feeding all too well, she'd like to normalize having candid, shame-free conversations on the topic. She points to her own "wildly different" experiences with her three kids.
"I think that's often something that we forget: is that depending on the baby, depending on where you're at in life, your environment, your setting, everything changes for how your feeding experience will go," she notes. "So while I had that rough first experience with my first child, that led me to the disappointment and emotions I had, I actually went in to the birth of my second child and I had a suit of armor. I was fully ready — I had the bottles, all different types of formula. I was ready to go, but yet he actually latched great. I didn't get mastitis. I was in a position that I was able to freely breastfeed him a lot longer than I did with my first. And when I did finally start transitioning to formula, I didn't feel bad about it. It was a completely different experience.
"Now, fast forward to my third child," she continues. "I was in the middle of building Bobbie and right in the middle of it — we were several weeks away from getting FDA approval, and it was also in the middle of a pandemic so I had two toddlers at home — my nanny quit. My mom wasn't over. It was a disaster. So now maybe my body was able to produce the milk, but my environment was not positioned to set me up to be exclusively breastfeeding this child in any way. And I made the immediate decision to start feeding him a bottle. And there's no difference with any of my kids: bottle, breast, both. They're all fabulous."
Her stance is clear: "There's no such thing as a bad way to feed your baby."
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