Coronavirus hasn’t caused a baby formula shortage, but COVID-19 has shoppers hoarding necessities including baby formula. Don’t panic if you can’t find yours. While homemade formula is never safe, there are smart steps to take to keep your baby healthy and fed.

By Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD
March 17, 2020

With fears about COVID-19 causing some people to load their carts with toilet paper and bread, it's no surprise that stockpiling has made its way to infant formula too. We've heard from some parents that baby formula is in short supply at their local store. That's definitely a scary-sounding development, but there's no reason to panic (or stockpile). Here's what to do instead.

First, stay calm. It's possible that there's been a run on formula at your local store, but that doesn't mean there's a nationwide formula shortage. According to a statement from Mardi Mountford, president of the Infant Nutrition Council of America, "Members of the Infant Nutrition Council of America are actively monitoring the COVID-19 issue and have plans in place to address challenges as they arise, in order to continue to produce safe infant formula. We want to remind parents and caregivers that there is infant formula available to meet their needs."

Similac, a major formula manufacturer, also offers this reassuring news: "As of now, there has been no impact on availability of Abbott nutrition products or distribution in the United States. We have a large global manufacturing and distribution network and have plans in place to manage contingencies as needed."

If your supermarket is running low, it's probably because they haven't adjusted their inventory to account for stockpiling—not because there's a nationwide formula shortage. Until they restock, remember that drug stores and baby supply stores also carry formula. Check the manufacturer's website for the store locator and call first to check stock before you visit. You can also order infant formula directly from the manufacturer or retailers like Amazon for home delivery.

And once you find formula, don't hoard. Buy a reasonable amount, being respectful of others who are in the same boat.

Christopher Pearce/Getty Images

What to Do If You Need to Switch Formulas

If you can't find your usual brand, that's OK. Follow this advice:

Call your pediatrician. The pediatrician may have suggestions for which formulas are similar to your usual brand or what to look for on the label.

Feel confident about the switch. Remember that all infant formula on store shelves—whether store brand, name-brand, organic, or conventional—is safe for babies, meets strict FDA regulations, and contains the exact formulation of nutrients that babies need to grow, says Bridget Young, Ph.D., a certified lactation counselor and an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Rochester.

Transition gradually if possible. If you have some of your usual formula left, combine it with the new formula over the course of four days, gradually adjusting the ratios (start with more of your usual formula and less of the new formula at first, tapering off the usual formula until the day four bottles are all new formula), advises Dr. Young. Prep the formulas separately before combining and be sure to use the scoop that came with the formula, since scoop sizes may vary. But if you have to make the switch all at once, that's OK too. "It's completely safe to switch a baby cold-turkey," she says.

Give it time. Your baby may have symptoms, such as gas or loose stools, at first—more so if you have to switch abruptly. Dr. Young recommends waiting 10 days on a new formula before deciding it's not working (obviously any red flags such as blood in the stool or trouble breathing are signs to stop feeding with that formula immediately).

Avoid hypoallergenic or amino-acid-based formulas unless your baby needs them. Babies who require these formulas cannot drink other kinds, so please save these formulas for those who truly need them, says Dr. Young.

These Infant Formula Alternatives Aren't Safe

The following are not safe substitutes for infant formula:

  • Toddler formula. They're designed for children older than one, so they have a different formulation of nutrients and don't meet the needs of infants, cautions pediatrician and Parents advisor Ari Brown, M.D., author of Baby 411. (Here's why they're not recommended for toddlers either.)

  • Cow's milk. Babies can't easily digest cow's milk until age one, and milk doesn't contain enough iron, a mineral critical to your baby's growth and development right now.

  • Diluted formula. Adding extra water to formula to make it last longer can be harmful to babies because it reduces the nutrients your baby gets (which can slow growth) and can lead to water intoxication, a potentially dangerous condition, warns the American Academy of Pediatrics.

  • Homemade formula. You may see recipes for homemade infant formula online or swapped through moms groups, but medical professionals warn against them. "There is not an official recipe to make baby formula like in the old days, and the ones circulating online are definitely not advised," says Dr. Brown. The FDA also cautions against homemade formula, noting that mistakes in making DIY formula can result in severe nutritional imbalances and harm to babies. Homemade infant formula may lack appropriate levels of nutrients needed to support healthy infant growth and brain development—and in some cases, catch-up growth and development for these deficiencies is not possible, according to the Infant Nutrition Council of America.

What Else You Can Do

Focus on food. You should continue feeding with formula until age one, but babies older than six months can start getting more nutrition from solid foods too. "This is a great time to prioritize high quality, nutrient-dense foods," says Dr. Young. Even new eaters can have pureed meat, pureed avocado, or baby cereal with a teaspoon of olive oil or butter stirred in. "When you provide more nutrients and calories from food, your baby will likely drink less formula."

Reach out to your pediatrician or local hospital. If you're in a desperate situation, Brown says that pediatricians usually get samples of formula (so do some hospitals), so reach out. If you're eligible for WIC or SNAP benefits, both may have infant formula as well. Other places to check: Women's shelters, food banks, and faith-based organizations that provide food assistance.

Consider breast milk. If you can't breastfeed, breast milk banks can provide safe, pasteurized breast milk (though it can be expensive). But "informal" breast milk sharing—such as between friends and neighbors or via donors found online—is not recommended for health and safety reasons.

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