Severe Baby Formula Shortages Are Affecting Parents

After several recalls and a slew of supply chain issues, the baby formula shortage has reached critical levels, with parents nationwide facing empty store shelves and buying limits. Here's how to feed your baby right now.

After months of recalls, supply chain issues, and labor shortages, many parents are struggling to find baby formula right now. Store shelves nationwide are empty, and some retailers are limiting their sale of the infant supplements. Prices have also spiked; according to CBS, the average cost of baby formula is up as much as 18% over the last 12 months.

Naturally, the shortage is causing anxiety in parents across the country, and who can blame them?The majority of babies rely on formula in some capacity. Also, some infants need specific types of formula to cope with allergies, sensitivities, or digestive issues—so swapping brands isn't always easy.

Thankfully, relief is on the way. On May 12, the White House announced a plan to combat the formula shortage, which involves relaxing WIC requirements and cracking down on price gauging. Also, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is increasing flexibilities around the importation of infant formula from foreign markets.

On May 18, President Joe Biden invoked the Defense Production Act, which will require "suppliers to direct needed resources to infant formula manufacturers before any other customer who may have ordered that good," according to a White House Fact Sheet. The President also launched Operation Fly Formula; this will allow U.S. commercial aircraft to transport FDA-approved infant formula from other counties.

Abbott Nutrition, a major baby formula manufacturer in America, will also be a key player in relieving the shortage. The company's production facility in Sturgis, Michigan, shut down in February after it voluntarily recalled several brands of formula; four infants got sick and two died from possible bacteria contamination. The closing of the Sturgis facility compounded the formula shortage, but Abbott Nutrition restarted production on June 4 after meeting FDA requirements. Production began with EleCare and other specialty and metabolic formulas, and the company said they should start being released around June 20.

The restart didn't last long, however, because the Sturgis facility closed again on June 15 following severe thunderstorms and flooding. Abbott Nutrition will sanitize its factory again, and it should restart production and distribution in "a few weeks," according to a press release. Since opening in June 4, Abbott has produced enough EleCare, as well as specialty and metabolic formulas, to meet demand for the time being. "These products are being released to consumers in need in coordination with healthcare professionals. Parents or caregivers in need should contact their healthcare professional or contact Abbott at +1-800-881-0876 for additional information," according to the press release.

So what what can parents do in the meantime? Here are some tips for finding formula and getting through the shortage.

What's Causing the Formula Shortage?

Across the country, parents have been reporting formula shortages in their local store, whether it's for Gerber, Enfamil, Similac, or other brands. The issue largely stems from the closure of Abbott Nutrition's facility in Sturgis, Michigan, which normally provides a large portion of the country's baby formula.

Other problems are contributing to the shortage as well, including labor shortages and supply chain issues. The Wall Street Journal points out that stores might also have trouble determining how much formula to stock, due to the large amount of relocations that took place during the pandemic.

What's more, formula shortages have led parents to stockpile, which creates even less inventory in stores and online. It's hard to blame parents for this behavior though; many babies rely solely on formula during their first several months of life, and some babies need specific brands to deal with allergies and digestive issues.

Where to Find Formula During the Shortage

If you're facing a formula shortage in your area, stay calm. It's possible that there's been a run on formula at your local store, but that doesn't mean you won't find your go-to product anywhere. 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 search for formula through online retailers, local shops, food banks, and charity organizations. Some parents are also having luck on Facebook groups and online forums. Experts recommend bringing the issue to your pediatrician or local hospital; they'll likely be able to point you in the right direction. Some health care providers might have formula samples they can give out.

If you're really struggling to find formula, you might consider switching brands, as long as your baby doesn't require a specific type. We compiled more information on switching brands below.

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

Half Empty Shelves of Baby Formula with Purchase Limit Signs
Christopher Pearce/Getty Images

What to Do If You Need to Switch Formulas

If you can't find your usual brand, that's normally OK. Most babies can switch formula brands with no problems. Follow this advice.

Call your pediatrician. Your health care provider 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, and you shouldn't rely on them for feeding your baby.

  • Toddler formula. They're designed for children older than 1 year old, 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.) That said, while not an official recommendation from the AAP, some pediatricians have taken the stance that if you absolutely have no other choice, toddler formula can be safe for a few days for babies who are close to a year of age; always ask your heath care provider before trying toddler formula though.
  • Cow's milk. Babies can't easily digest cow's milk until age 1, and milk doesn't contain enough iron, a mineral critical to your baby's growth and development right now. That said, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says "it may be OK for some babies over six months of age to have cow's milk for a short period of time if no formula is available" during the shortage—although it isn't ideal
  • 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 AAP. Always follow mixing instructions on the label or those given by your pediatrician.
  • Homemade formula. You may see recipes for homemade infant formula online or swapped through parent 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 AAP strongly advises against the use of homemade formulas, citing possible infant death from its use. 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 1, 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, Dr. 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. Online donors might attempt to maximize their profits by augmenting milk to increase its volume, and milk might also arrived thawed, spoiled, or contaminated by bacteria. Breast milk shared among friends or relatives could put your baby at additional risks; for example, the donors might be taking medications or herbal supplements that aren't compatible with breastfeeding, or they could be using alcohol or drugs. They would also need screenings for certain infections that can be transmissible in breast milk. Families choosing to pursue breast milk sharing despite FDA and AAP recommendations are encouraged to discuss their informed choice with a health care provider.

For formula-feeding parents who have recently given birth—or those who have low or nonexistent milk supply with a continued interest in breastfeeding—relactation might also be possible. Talk to your health care provider or a lactation speciality about how to safely increase your breast milk supply, and read more about relactation here.

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