What Parents Can Do About the Formula Shortage
What Parents Can Do About the Formula Shortage
May 16, 2022

What Parents Can Do About the Formula Shortage

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What Parents Can Do About the Formula Shortage.
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What Parents Can Do About the Formula Shortage

Parents have been dealt more than their fair share of curveballs since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and now there’s one more to contend with: the infant formula shortage.

The sight of empty grocery store shelves can be an unwelcome callback to the early days of the pandemic. But parents who rely on formula—either wholly or in part—to feed their babies are in a uniquely vulnerable position. If you’re overwhelmed by it all, you’re not alone. We’ve compiled answers to some common questions below.

Why is there a formula shortage?

The combination of existing supply chain issues and the nation’s largest formula supplier, Abbott Nutrition, pausing production after a recall in February has resulted in a nightmare situation for parents, especially those with very young infants. The recalled products, which were all powdered formulas, included both regular and hypoallergenic/specialty varieties, had been linked to outbreaks of two strains of bacterial infections—Cronobacter and Salmonella—in four infants, resulting in two deaths. Although the evidence connecting the infections to Abbott-produced formula has not been proven during subsequent product testing, the facility has not yet resumed production and available supplies are dwindling.

I can’t find my usual brand of formula, but others are available. Can I switch my baby’s formula?

Yes, in most cases, as long as you stick with the same type of formula (for instance, swapping one iron-fortified cow’s-milk-based brand for another). “Most babies do require time to adjust to a new formula,” says Katie Ferraro, the registered dietician behind @babyledweanteam. “Be prepared for a little more fussiness than usual, more gas or changes to the stool pattern or consistency. If you’ve used a brand name, it’s fine to switch to generic, or vice versa.”

Ferraro speaks from experience, too. “I am a mom of 7 kids, all of who at one time relied on formula and while changes to formula brands or varieties can be a little rocky, most babies adjust quickly,” she says.

Of course, if your baby is on a specialized diet (such as a hypoallergenic formula), you’ll need to consult with your pediatrician before changing things up, and if you receive WIC, don’t forget to contact them about any formula substitutions to make sure it’s approved. And as always, keep an eye out for signs of constipation, vomiting or other symptoms of dietary distress and make sure you keep your pediatrician in the loop.

I saw a recipe card from the ‘60s circulating online that outlined how to make homemade baby formula. Should I make my own formula?

No. Pediatricians strongly advise against making your own formula, citing dangers such as contamination, water intoxication and even cardiac arrest. “Replicating the nutrient intricacies of human milk is an exact science,” Ferraro says. “The risk for potential contamination or suboptimal nutrient intake is too great for the fragile, developing infant body and brain.”

So if you see formula recipes floating around on your Instagram feed, resist the temptation to try it yourself.

I got lucky and found a store that still has plenty of the formula I need. Should I stockpile what I can while I have the chance?

No. Formula hoarding has worsened the situation considerably, and some unscrupulous sellers are engaging in price gouging. Children with special dietary needs or severe allergies are particularly at risk due to the shortage, so a much better option would be to donate any extra formula you come across to a hospital or shelter where it can be distributed to families in need.

Dr. Mona Amin from Peds Doc Talk recommends maintaining a two week supply if possible, and also issues a reminder to avoid buying specialized formula as a replacement for your usual formula to avoid worsening the shortage for children with special dietary needs.

I’m open to trying another brand, but I can’t find ANY formula in stock. What options do I have?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has a list of alternative formula resources if your local groceries and pharmacies have been cleaned out. But here are other places you can look:

  • Your pediatrician: They may be able to offer sample cans or connect you with formula representatives.
  • Smaller retailers: You may have luck with independently owned pharmacies or locally owned grocery stores.
  • Reputable online distributors: If you can’t find formula in physical stores, look to Target, Sam’s Club, Thrive Market, and others major retailers.
  • Social media groups: A local parents’ group can connect with people who have formula they don’t need, or those who know of retailers that have formula in stock.
  • Milk banks: If you’re open to using donor breast milk, this may be worth exploring.
  • International retailers: This may be an option if you can find a reputable source or have a family member or friend overseas who can ship to you, although that may be cost-prohibitive.

If you’ve seen cow’s milk recommended as a temporary formula replacement for infants over six months, you should be aware that it’s best saved for emergencies, after other options have been exhausted. “While it is safe for babies age [six months and up] to consume cow’s milk protein in foods like yogurt or as ingredients in other foods, fluid cow’s milk is not an acceptable alternative for breast milk and/or commercial infant formula,” Ferraro says, and this replacement “should be a last resort (although certainly more preferable than watering down formula!).” If you’re considering doing something like this, your first step should be looping in your child’s pediatrician to advise.

I have some formula left, but I’m worried it’s not enough. Should I dilute it by watering it down?

No. Diluting infant formula can have disastrous consequences. However, if your baby is ready to start solids, this may be a great time to add supplemental chewable nutrition to their diet.

This is awful! And stressful! When will the formula shortage end?

Agreed! By six months of age, most babies’ diets include at least some formula, so the impact of this crisis has been considerable. The good news is, the FDA announced last week that it’s taking important steps to alleviate the shortage as quickly as possible. These measures include increasing production output at domestic formula manufacturing facilities, fast-tracking the import of foreign formula, asking retailers to enforce purchase limits to prevent hoarding, and more. Additionally, the shuttered Abbott facility has announced tentative plans to restart production in as little as two weeks, beginning with its specialty products (including EleCare and Alimentum). Those items could start reappearing in stores less than two months after production resumes, so even though we’re still in the midst of a very scary time, at least there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

Formula Shortage in Target

Tess Lynch is a writer and mom in Los Angeles. You can find her on Substack at laweatherletter.substack.com.

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