5 Ways To Help Families Struggling From the Formula Shortage

Extended family and community members can come together to help parents during the formula shortage. Here's what experts recommend.

Child eating
Photo: Getty Images/Ryuichi Sato

News of families desperate to find baby formula amidst the ongoing shortage is difficult to watch. My not-so-little kids are well past that stage, but my heart breaks for moms, dads, caregivers, and their villages who are going to great lengths to find the food babies need.

About 1 in 4 infants are breastfeeding exclusively at 6 months of age, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 2020 Breastfeeding Report Card, which means most infants need some formula. U.S. parents living in poverty are more likely to supplement with formula, according to a CDC survey from 2018. These families are now hit even harder by formula recalls and shortages as they have fewer resources to locate a scarce supply.

"It's easy to feel helpless, but there's a lot the community and extended family can do to help struggling parents right now," says Sarah Fleet, M.D., director of the Growth and Nutrition Program at Boston Children's Hospital.

The government relaxed requirements for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)—about half of infant formula is bought using WIC—and cracked down on price gouging, while the FDA increased flexibilities on the importation of certain infant formula, but the reality is that nationwide shortages still persist. Making matters worse, Abbott Inc. announced another recall of formula in October due to defective caps.

American families are struggling and, naturally, many people want to help those in need. While it should never be the responsibility of individual families or communities to solve a problem of this magnitude, there are small ways to help right now.

Share Locations of Stores With Formula on Social Media

"Join a local Facebook or social media group dedicated to helping parents find formula," suggests Kelsey Klaas, M.D., a pediatrician with the Mayo Clinic based in Rochester, Minnesota. "If you see formula on a shelf, take a picture and post the time and location of where you saw it."

If your community is small, larger Facebook groups help connect parents nationally. For example, the group, Moms Helping Moms: Formula Shortage Donations, has a spreadsheet for parents to enter their location and formula needs across the country.

Dr. Klaas warns helpers not to buy formula unless you have someone specific in mind you are buying it for. "Purchasing formula with the intent to distribute it later, while well-meaning, could prevent someone who is desperate from getting what they need."

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends keeping no more than a two-week supply on-hand to prevent hoarding.

Donate Unopened Formula or Formula Samples

When my kids were babies, I tried several different formulas before finding the one that helped settle their reflux. I ended up with many unopened samples that sat in my pantry long after my kids graduated to cow's milk.

Dr. Klass says it's safe to offer this leftover formula to families as long as the containers are still sealed and haven't expired. Take them to a food bank or post them to social media with a picture of the brand and expiration date.

"If you have hypoallergenic formula to donate, contact your pediatrician's office. These brands are harder to come by, and they may have a list of families looking for certain types," says Dr. Fleet.

Rashmi Jain, M.D., a concierge pediatrician in Irvine, California and founder of BabiesMD, says she's been facilitating the exchange of unopened formula at her practice with the help of families who have a surplus they don't need anymore. She encourages helpers in a community to come together to create a place for exchange and donation of formula. "If you are part of a mommy group or neighborhood community group where you can help organize one centralized location for people to exchange and donate surplus formulas it can be very helpful for other families," she explains.

Give to a Food Bank

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), more than 38 million people live in food-insecure households, meaning they have limited or uncertain access to adequate food. Food banks help fill the gaps in normal times but are even more essential now, given the pandemic and the resulting supply chain issues.

"Consider donating time or money to a local food bank, so they can mobilize faster when more formula is available," says Dr. Klaas. Feeding America offers a zip-code search to a nationwide network of food banks.

Offer Time and Support to Help Relieve Stress

"Remember March 2020 when we were all stressed about finding toilet paper?" says Dr. Fleet. "This is that times 100."

These parents are stressed, sleep-deprived, and often working long hours to support their families. Dr. Klaas says anything you can do to provide support, like offering to search for supplies while they're working or bringing over a meal for parents and older siblings, will go a long way.

You might think you're helping by looking up homemade formulas or finding supplies outside the U.S., but the AAP warns not to do either. Babies need FDA-approved formula that has undergone rigorous safety standards.

"You'll do much more good by letting parents know where you see formula on the shelves or by donating time to let an anxious mom get an extra hour of sleep," says Dr. Fleet.

Share Helpful Online Resources

Busy parents may not have time to look up the latest guidance from reputable sources. The following links offer helpful advice on what's safe to feed babies and where to look for help.

Parents may be eligible to get formula through local WIC clinics.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has a fact sheet with numbers to call and resources for finding formula.

The AAP offers guidance on what to do if families can't find formula.

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