This messaging should be implicit, but, as with so much of modern-day parenting, even the simplest concept—providing adequate nourishment for a newborn—is dominated by a near-constant feeling of doing it wrong and not doing enough. When it comes to feeding, the issue is compounded by a supply chain problem: When the U.S. was first faced with an infant formula shortage earlier this year, the crisis highlighted what can happen when a market is dominated by just a few manufacturers—and it created a white space for worthy start-ups like Bobbie. As many people responded to desperate parents panicking about the shortage by telling them to “just breastfeed,” the misguided notions (chief among them, that breastfeeding is easy) and stigma around our feeding choices were also laid bare.
“Really, there’s no one way that is better than the other,” says Graham, who is both a Bobbie customer and, along with celebrities including Laura Dern and Gwyneth Paltrow, an investor. “It’s not about picking which one is best, it’s about knowing what’s best for you and your family and not caring what everybody else thinks. I’m ready to end the war on feeding.” It’s a war that medical organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) are, unfortunately, helping to fuel. This summer, amidst the formula shortage, the AAP doubled down on their breastfeeding recommendations, saying that for the health of their babies, women should breastfeed exclusively for six months, and continue to do so for 2 years (an increase from their previous recommendation of 1 year). The advice feels dangerously out of step with the feeding choices made by the majority of parents, often for both physical and logistical reasons: Graham points to a 2021 Wakefield-run study showing that 83% of parents rely on formula during their baby’s first year and 70% of formula-feeding parents are combo feeding, meaning they use some combination of breastmilk and formula. Even more compelling is that 79% of moms feel guilty about some aspect of their infant feeding choices and 64% of parents, Graham included, simply feel judged for feeding their baby formula at all. “It’s a decision that just needs to be normalized,” she adds, a concept that should certainly be helped along by 672 square feet of representation. Here, Graham talks clogged ducts, trusting your intuition, and seeking help when you need it.
VOGUE: Before you became a parent, did you have any preconceived notions about what feeding would look like for you?
Ashley Graham: I really thought that you just jam in the boob and then they just take to it. I didn’t know it was, like, you have to have their mouth cocked open and back and then slip the nipple in and then you hope they’re not tongue tied or you hope that they latch. I don’t even know if in the first two days of having my first son, Isaac, he was even getting anything… maybe a couple of drips? Because I kept thinking, “It’s just not working, and it kind of hurts.” And my nurse said, “Oh, maybe you’re doing it wrong?”
How was your experience different when you had your twins two-and-a-half-years after your oldest son was born?
AG: With Isaac I breastfed him for 13 months and then I was like, “Okay, I’m tired. You’re done.” And then when I had the twins, my first thought wasn’t about how much are they getting, but literally how am I going to feed them? The first week with them was really difficult. It was really hard just getting them both to latch at the same time and trying to figure that out. I got good at it eventually, but then I just couldn’t keep up. My supply couldn’t keep up with their demand. I’ve got two babies at the same time that want the same amount of food! I mean… it felt, for me, virtually impossible.
Did you rely on any support for breastfeeding?
AG: A hundred percent. Because with Isaac, I didn’t know if I was actually feeding him and I needed someone to come over and help me understand how breastfeeding actually works. The whole thing can be very complicated and very daunting. Our lactation consultant’s name was Jenny Rebecca and, even better, she lived down the street. I feel very lucky that I was able to have her. I feel like there needs to be more of that kind of support for everyone. Your baby comes out and then you’re expected to just be a stellar breast-feeder; I think that’s ridiculous.
It is! Did you experience any of the extremely common physical issues that can often make breastfeeding even more challenging, like clogged ducts or mastitis?
AG: I had a very bad clogged duct this time around, which was one of the most painful things I had ever been through. I ended up putting heat compression on it and using the Haakaa [breast pump] to suck the life out of it. And massaged it a lot. It finally went away but I didn’t even realize at the time that it could turn into mastitis. All the things you don’t know until it happens to you.
That list is long! You travel so much for work, so I imagine you’ve experienced some of the logistical challenges that can come with breastfeeding as well.
AG: There isn’t a place I haven’t breastfed, there isn’t a place I haven’t pumped, and I did it shamelessly. I definitely got the lookie-loos, but I never had anybody come up and say anything to me. But I wasn’t prepared with the twins the way that I was with Isaac. With Isaac, it was during the pandemic and I was home. I didn’t really leave the house for the first time until he was eight months old. I remember I was only gone for four days and I was like, “Oh no, my supply is going to go down. Do I need to FedEx milk back?” I mean, he was fine. But the twins, I went back to work so much earlier and I started traveling so much sooner and my supply started to diminish. I found myself setting alarms to pump to remember so that I could try to keep my supply up. And then I’d come back and I’d only have a certain amount of bags with me and I’d be like, “Wow, they’re eating this in just one morning. I don’t have enough.” It was going back to work and traveling that really kind of gave me that daunting feeling of, “How am I going to be able to feed my babies?” My body just could not produce.
It can be overwhelming. We put such enormous pressure on ourselves, but there’s also such a scope of judgment around all of our feeding choices. Did you experience this at all?
AG: Yes. With Isaac it was my own personal goal that I wanted to make it a year. And then I made it a year and I thought, “Oh, should I keep going?” And I remember somebody saying to me, “You don’t want to be that mom,” that your kids are old enough to be lifting up your shirt. And I was like, “Well, what if I am that mom? What does it matter to you? Thank you. Thank you very much for your input.” And then I also got, when I started wanting to implement formula with the twins, it was, “Well, you’re still going to breastfeed, right?” And, “You’re not stopping, right?” I just try to always go back to the old saying of what is better for your child? My mom told me this before I got pregnant with Isaac that you as mommy will always know best, and if you need help, you ask for help. But to remember that your intuition is the one to follow.
It’s such great advice, but it doesn’t always quiet the noise—especially when you’re in those first few months postpartum.
AG: Yes exactly. And you’re in survival mode for your children, and you don’t want to mess up.
I imagine it was even harder during the early days of the formula shortage, too, when there was a lot of problematic messaging to “just breastfeed.”
AG: That was hard. It’s disheartening to hear people tell you what to do with your own body, and they just assume that you can do something just because it seems like an obvious choice. But nothing’s obvious when it comes to children, when it comes to getting pregnant, when it comes to birthing them, and then when it comes to feeding them and raising them.
How did you decide to start combo feeding your boys?
AG: It’s a really daunting experience to have to figure it out, especially when you realize that it’s something that you need for yourself. In my case, formula was a need and not necessarily a want, and then it turned into an, “Oh, thank God it’s here!” Isaac is almost three and the twins are eight months and they have nothing different that has happened to them because they got formula way sooner. My kids are so happy. They are alive. They drink Bobbie. And the proof is in the poop. Ha!
Truth! Has it been a conscious decision for you to be so transparent about your own breastfeeding experience?
AG: I’ve never been one to shy away and not talk about everything that’s going on in my life. And I think after I found out that I was pregnant the first time, I realized that I didn’t know so much information until the last six weeks of my pregnancy. I couldn’t believe how much doctors were not telling women about their pregnancies. And it kind of pissed me off! So that’s why I talked about home birth and my experience with that and also breastfeeding and my experience with that. And then I had the twins and that was its own experience in itself. I just felt like I had enough knowledge where I wanted to share more. And whenever I talk about any of this with my friends and they say, “What? I never heard about that.” Or, “I didn’t know that was an option.” I think, then let’s go to social media and talk about it. If I have a platform I’m going to use it.