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How Parents Should Handle the Baby Formula Shortage, According to Pediatricians

7 minute read

The U.S. is still in the throes of an unprecedented infant-formula shortage. Supply-chain issues caused by the pandemic started affecting baby formula in the summer of 2021, and inventory constricted even further after Abbott recalled certain formula products in February (then more in March) and shut down its Michigan plant.

Families facing empty shelves are terrified that their children will go hungry, since breast milk or formula—or a combination of both—is a main source of nutrition for babies from birth until about age one.

“It’s not fair that families have to be even worried about this on top of being a new parent,” says Dr. Shweta S. Namjoshi, medical director of intestinal rehabilitation and nutrition support at Stanford Children’s Health. “It’s unacceptable.”

But pediatricians are experts on finding infant food, and they can help families locate shops where formula is in stock, safely guide them to different brands, and coach them through this stressful time. “I’m sorry that it feels so scary, but there’s no need for panic quite yet,” Namjoshi says.

Here’s what pediatricians say about how to safely navigate the formula shortage.

Try a different brand

For parents of full-term, healthy infants, it’s very safe to switch to different brands of infant formula, including generic versions.

“The way formula is marketed makes it so that parents feel fear and pressure, like ‘Oh, I can’t switch brands,’… but that’s just not true,” Namjoshi says. Even when products say that they are formulated for certain issues—like anti-gas or anti-reflux—they will work just fine for most babies without diagnosed issues, she says. “Enfamil, Gerber—they’re all basically the same. They use the same mix of sugars, the same proteins, the same fats.”

Children may be a little fussy as they go through an adjustment period with a new brand, but often “it’s just a child acclimating to something different,” she says.

However, children with special needs and medical conditions—such as some immune-compromised children, those with allergies or gastrointestinal issues, and premature babies, for instance—may require specialized formulas, such as hypoallergenic or lactose-free formulations. These patients should work closely with their physicians when they explore new formula options.

“For babies who are on typical formulas, they’re able to find something,” says Dr. Rachel Dawkins, medical director of the pediatric and adolescent medicine clinics at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. “But it’s those children with special health-care needs that might be on a specialized formula—they’re really having a struggle.”

Because every type of formula is now so hard to find, some parents of healthy infants are buying specialized formulas, which are often the only options left on shelves. Infants without medical issues can safely use them, doctors say, but they should only do so if they are the only option left, because some babies can only use those specialized formulas.

Take advantage of government options

Families receiving formula from WIC—the national nutrition program for low-income women, infants, and children that serves nearly half of all infants in the U.S.—now have additional options. On May 21, President Joe Biden signed the Access to Baby Formula Act of 2022 so that WIC may offer more types and sizes of formula cans during emergencies like this.

The U.S. is now importing formula from other countries as well, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is looking to change its rules on allowing international shipments of formula during shortages.

Several international companies “are seeking urgent approval for those types of formulas,” says Dr. Steven Abrams, professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas at Austin Dell Medical School and past chair of the nutrition committee at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). He expects the FDA to grant rapid approval for international brands “in the next week or two.”

“People are beginning to understand that the system didn’t have enough safety points,” Abrams says. “We need to have a lot more backup,” he says, and a system that doesn’t just rely on just a few companies to make nearly all of the country’s formula.

Don’t hesitate to ask your pediatrician for help

If you can’t find formula or are nervous about running out, or if your baby is fussy from trying different brands, your pediatrician can help guide you through this stressful time.

Pediatricians can access backup supplies of formula—children’s hospitals still have formula, for instance, though that should be nobody’s first stop—and they are also closely attuned to where formula is in stock. Doctors can also offer advice and referrals to lactation support for families looking to start breastfeeding or increase supply.

“Your baby’s going to be okay,” Namjoshi says. “No pediatrician will ever let your child just go hungry. We have backups.”

Don’t replace formula or water it down

Cow’s milk and plant-based milk alternatives are not acceptable substitutes for breast milk or formula. These liquids are missing essential nutrients that babies need for proper nutrition and could cause health issues for infants. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends introducing whole milk from cows around the first birthday. If infants drink too much of it before then, they could develop intestinal bleeding, kidney issues, and dairy allergies.

Parents should also never water down formula in order to make the cans last longer. Doing so can cause hyponatremia, a condition that occurs when sodium levels drop too low, which can lead to seizures. Not getting enough nutrients can also lead to a failure to thrive.

Making your own homemade formula is another bad idea, experts say. “There’s plenty of recipes and old wives’ tales out there, but they’re not safe,” Dawkins said. “They don’t supply the necessary nutrients for babies and may cause some electrolyte problems and nutritional deficiencies.”

Be cautious when obtaining formula or breast milk that’s not from a store

“It’s okay to crowdsource in your local communities or on different mommy groups online, but I would just make sure that the cans of formula aren’t expired and they’re not open,” Dawkins says. “Sometimes people have extra, and I think it’s great to be able to help out your neighbor.”

But be wary of sharing breast milk from a freezer stash. “What we would prefer is for people who have extra milk to donate it to their milk banks,” Abrams says. The banks screen milk donors for health conditions, pasteurize the milk, and distribute it to the babies who need it most—often those in neonatal intensive care units.

Informal milk sharing networks aren’t regulated the same way milk banks are, and the milk could be adulterated or unsafe. “We have to be cautious about direct milk sharing or wet nursing, and especially cautious about anything from a donor you don’t personally know,” Abrams says.

Don’t panic-buy

It might be tempting to fill your pantry with formula if you’re able to find it, but it’s important to leave some on the shelves for other families who need it.

“Don’t worry excessively if you have plenty of supply,” Dawkins says. “Hopefully the end is in sight for the formula shortage.”

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