The baby formula shortage has left store shelves empty across much of the United States, with many parents desperately trying to find solutions.
The formula industry was already grappling with COVID-related supply chain issues, but the situation worsened in recent months after Abbott Nutrition, a major manufacturer, announced the recall of certain product lots. Similac, Alimentum and EleCare. At least four infants have contracted bacterial infections after consuming formula from the same Michigan manufacturing plant. Two of the babies died. (Abbott said his formula was “not likely the source of the infection.” The Food and Drug Administration is investigating.)
In April, out-of-stock levels for infant formula reached 30% at retailers across the country. By May, that number had risen to 43%, according to data analytics firm Dataassembly.
For the millions of parents and caregivers whose babies depend on formula for their nutrition, either partially or completely, this is an extremely frustrating and stressful situation – and it’s even worse for families who have need a specific formula due to allergies or other health issues.
We asked a pediatrician and pediatric nurse practitioner for expert advice on what to do if you can’t find your usual formula.
Check the smaller stores.
If big chains like Target, Walmart, CVS, and grocery stores sell out of your usual formula, you may have better luck finding it at a smaller local retailer.
“Think of the small ‘mom and pop’ stores that aren’t as popular as the big stores,” Karen L. Gentile, pediatric nurse practitioner at National Jewish Health, told HuffPost. “Since these stores tend to be less crowded, they’ll be more likely to have formula in stock.”
Also consider buying formula milk online from a trusted retailer. Visit formula makers’ websites and use the “where to buy” search to make sure it’s from a reputable seller, Gentile added.
Switch to another brand.
Generally speaking, formula ingredients are similar across different brands of the same type of formula, i.e. from a formula made from cow’s milk (the type recommended for most babies) to another, or from one soy formula to another.
Once you find a brand of formula that works well for your child, switching may not be ideal. But for most babies, it’s “completely safe” to make a switch, Gentile said, “as long as your baby isn’t on a medically prescribed formula — for example, a hydrolyzed or amino acid-based formula. “. If your child is taking one of these hypoallergenic formulas, consult your pediatrician before switching.
To minimize digestive upset, Gentile recommends a slow transition by combining part of the old formula with part of the new formula.
Consider store-brand formulas like Target’s Up & Up, Walmart’s Parent’s Choice and online brands like Amazon’s Mama Bear, which may be easier to find, said Dr. Jen Trachtenberg, pediatrician at Carnegie Hill Pediatrics and assistant clinical professor. at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
The store brands “all meet the FDA’s nutritional standards for your baby to get the nutrients needed for growth and development,” Trachtenberg said.
“If you’re not sure what your baby is using, don’t hesitate to contact your pediatrician,” she added.
You can also switch from a powdered formula to a concentrated or ready-to-use formula if one of those varieties is more readily available in your area, Trachtenberg said.
“The powder is the cheapest, but needs to be mixed with water, just like the liquid concentrate,” Trachtenberg said. “Ready to serve, just no mixing or adding water needed.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend buying imported European formula brands online, as some parents did during the shortage. These formulas, which are often more expensive, are not FDA approved, although this may change in the future.
“I generally don’t recommend buying European brands for a variety of reasons, even without a shortage,” said Trachtenberg, who is also a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Instructions on how to prepare and size spoons may be different from those in the United States, there may be temperature control and transportation issues, recalls outside the United States may not be known, and some European formulas may have different nutrient levels – for example, lower in iron than required in the US”
Ask if your pediatrician has samples.
Big formula companies like Enfamil and Similac often send boxes of formula to pediatricians as free samples for patients’ families. It’s worth calling your child’s doctor to see if they have any. Even if they don’t, they may be able to help you find one in your area.
You can also try contacting formula makers directly to see if they have samples, Gentile said.
Reach out to your social circle, online and offline.
Check with friends and family to see if they have the formula you need or where you can get it. Recently, locally-based Facebook groups have sprung up, connecting parents and caregivers so they can help each other find the products they need.
“Pregnant parents often receive free samples of infant formula sent to their homes as part of a marketing campaign by infant formula companies,” Gentile said. “On a personal note: when I was a breastfeeding mom, I kept my free formula samples as an ’emergency backup’ just in case my supply ran out. I would have been more than happy to share with a family in need!”
If you can’t find any infant formula, cow’s milk, or toddler formula may be temporary options.
Although it’s not recommended under normal circumstances, if your baby is older than 6 months, you may be able to temporarily give whole cow’s milk, Trachtenberg said. But be sure to talk to your child’s doctor before going this route, as the general rule is always to wait until 12 months of age to introduce it.
“The problem is that whole cow’s milk can cause iron deficiency anemia in large amounts at a young age,” Trachtenberg said. “So make sure baby gets plenty of iron-rich foods in their diet – meats, eggs, cereals fortified with green vegetables – and possibly an iron supplement if needed, so discuss this with your pediatrician.”
Another option is the toddler plan. Experts don’t usually recommend it, even for older babies, but it may be something to consider amid the baby formula shortage.
“It’s not exactly the same as infant formula and some are loaded with excess sugars, artificial colors and calories,” said Trachtenberg, who recommends brands like Else or Aussie Bubs in a pinch.
According to Gentile, relying on whole milk or infant formula is acceptable as a very short-term (two to three day) solution for infants approaching the 12-month mark.
“It should be done under the strict guidance of a pediatrician because these options don’t provide the proper vitamins and minerals to be a long-term solution,” Gentile added.
Also, consider buying human breast milk from a trusted breast milk bank, Gentile suggested.
“This milk is thoroughly tested for safety,” she said. “Your pediatrician should be able to guide you to a local breastmilk bank.”
Never dilute the formula.
Some parents may be tempted to dilute their baby’s formula by adding extra water to make what little they have left last longer. Do not do that. It can be very dangerous, even deadly.
“This can lead to too few calories and an inappropriate concentration of vitamins and minerals, which can lead to malnutrition, poor growth, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, irritability and even seizures,” a warned Gentile.
Always mix the formula according to the manufacturer’s directions.
Never make your own formula at home.
You may have come across homemade formula recipes online that seem like a good alternative to use in an emergency. But that’s not the case, Trachtenberg said.
Consuming homemade formula can be dangerous or even fatal for babies, and the recipes do not meet specific nutritional needs.
“Unfortunately, deaths have been reported from the use of some homemade formulas,” Trachtenberg noted.
Try not to store.
To help manage the shortage, retailers like CVS, Costco and Walgreens have begun limiting the number of formula purchases per transaction. You can do your part to help other families by not buying too much.
“I know it can be difficult, but the AAP recommends buying no more than two weeks’ supply instead of stocking to alleviate shortages,” Trachtenberg said.