news·14 min read

‘I Don't Want Her To Be Hungry’: How The Baby Formula Shortage Is Taking A Toll On Families

Berenice Ramirez with her baby boy, Nilo.
Photo: Berenice Ramirez
May 18, 2022

How do you feed your baby when you can’t find the food they need? It’s a question that countless families across the US are grappling with amid a baby formula shortage. In February, the country’s largest manufacturer of baby formula shut down a plant because of bacterial contamination issues. That’s on top of the ongoing supply chain issues triggered by the pandemic. These conditions have created a perfect storm for a shortage that’s reached a fever pitch. 

Case in point: 40% of baby formula was out of stock in the US toward the end of April. That’s a big problem, considering that roughly three out of four babies rely on it at some point in their first six months of life. This crisis is hurting children who are still growing and developing. And has even caused at least two children to be hospitalized

The Biden admin is taking steps to try to bring relief, from working with the manufacturer to reopen its plant to importing more formula. But families can't wait much longer. theSkimm spoke to parents, moms-to-be, milk banks, and health experts about how the crisis is affecting them right now. They open up about their fears, concerns, and what they’re doing to navigate a shortage that can impact their children’s health.

Moms are traveling to countless stores and hoping for the best

Six-month-old Ava is still on formula | Photo: Jasmine Morgan | Design: theSkimm

Jasmine Morgan lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and has two children. Including six-month old Ava, who’s photogenic, “always ready for the camera,” and a growing baby girl. Morgan said her daughter goes through a can of formula within a week and a half. And finding that formula has turned into a scavenger hunt.

“This month, I've traveled to about five different stores to find her milk,” Morgan said. “Once I get to a store and I see it and it's like four or five cans left on the shelf, I just grab them because she needs it.”

Morgan has found relief in the fact that her child can eat some baby oatmeal and rice. But Ava, who’s on a special formula for acid reflux, still needs milk as a supplement. And while Morgan said she’s been managing so far, the shortage is taking a toll.

“It's stressful because you never know when you'll run out of milk,” she said. “My [3-year-old] son, he's autistic. So it's a lot to make sure he has what he needs and then make sure [my daughter] has what she needs as well.”

Morgan benefits from a federal program that provides low-income families with nutritional support in the form of checks or vouchers. But at times, she’s had to pay for formula out of pocket. And has even donated it: Morgan has a niece who’s also on formula. And has provided for her as well — even if it meant having to struggle later for her own daughter. 

“That's my niece and I don't want her to be hungry,” she said.

Morgan said she’s grateful to have a support system and a car so that she can search for formula. And that she feels for others who are also struggling. It’s something that other moms like 30-year-old Katee Ames are also keeping top of mind. Ames works at a Wisconsin mental health clinic and said she’s seeing a lot of low-income families struggle.

“It's causing a lot of anxiety and panic,” she said. “Even if they do have food stamps for [formula], they can't find it. And that may be their only source of feeding their baby.”

Katee Ames’ six-month-old son relies on formula | Photo: Katee Ames | Design: theSkimm

Ames also has concerns for her own child. She has a six-month-old boy who needs formula. On one recent trip, her husband could only find a small container of formula for $35.

“My anxiety has gotten pretty intense lately because of [the shortage],” she said. “He's not quite old enough to just live off of solid food and he can't have cow's milk yet. So it just makes me really worried about making sure he's getting the calorie intake that he's supposed to. It's very stressful and kind of scary.”

Ames said milk banks aren’t an affordable option for her family. Note: Milk banks can be expensive. That’s because there are fees associated with processing donated milk and making sure it’s safe. So for now, the Ames’ are doing what they can and feeding their son vegetable and fruit purées. And they’re being careful not to overbuy formula whenever they find it. 

“We're trying to just keep up, but it makes you want to hoard it because you don't know when you'll be able to get it,” Ames said. 

Berenice Ramirez's baby boy, Nilo, is still drinking formula milk | Photo: Berenice Ramirez | Design: theSkimm

For Berenice Ramirez, navigating the shortage has been an eye-opening experience. The 25-year-old mom lives in Wisconsin with her eight-month-old son, Nilo. He has a diet that needs to be supplemented with formula. 

“I really didn't think that it would come to this point where you are scrambling to find formula for your child,” she said. “I feel like it's Black Friday all over again, where you literally have to stand outside the store and watch as the truck arrives and be the first one there to collect formula if there is formula.”

Ramirez said she was breastfeeding her son for about six months. But then her body wasn’t able to produce enough milk — even with the help of lactation consultants. As a full-time student, pumping hasn’t been an option either. But the shortage means she’s giving it another go.

“Now with the shortage, I had to start pumping again to see if I could supplement with [breast] milk,” Ramirez explained. “Even with that, I don't think I'm able to reach his hunger limit…because he is taking a lot more milk now that he's getting bigger.”

She said she’s considered switching formulas but worries about potential allergic reactions.  

“It’s very scary to think about because your babies are so accustomed to their regular formula and feedings,” Ramirez said. “And when something like this happens, it's like, you don't have to pay the price for it. The baby does.”

For some moms-to-be, formula wasn’t a concern…until now

Anna Stinauer is pregnant with her first child | Photo: Anna Stinauer | Design: theSkimm

Anna Stinauer, who’s from Illinois, is nearly 30 weeks pregnant with her first child. At first, she didn't think much of the baby formula shortage. But the topic has recently come up a lot on social media, in her friend group, and even at home.

“I was watching the news with my husband,” she explained. “He was asking, ‘Wait, should we be getting formula? Should we be stocking up?” Which would never have been something we would've thought to do in advance.”

Stinauer said they’re not taking any action since they don’t know if they’ll need formula. She’s hoping to breastfeed but acknowledges that might not be an option. And said she’s learned a lot about formulas amid the shortage.

“Even the moms that I know can breastfeed still have to buy formula,” Stinauer said. “And I don't think I knew that until this shortage.”

Right now, she’s trying to stay positive and hopes the shortage will ease up soon — especially by the time she gives birth. It’s the same hope that Stephanie Fryer’s hanging on to. She’s about to enter her last trimester and has been following the baby formula shortage for months.

“As an expecting mom, it's something I'm definitely keeping in my line of sight because if I'm unable to breastfeed, for whatever reason, this is going to directly impact my family in a matter of months,” she said. 

Stephanie Fryer's expecting her first child in September | Photo: Stephanie Fryer | Design: theSkimm

Fryer, who’s expecting her first baby, said her pregnancy has had some complications from the start. And even though her pregnancy is now progressing well, the shortage is another stressor. 

“I'm hoping and praying I'll be able to breastfeed,” she said. “But if that's not an option, I really have to start thinking of what outlets I'll be able to turn to come September.”

For Foram M, who’s five months pregnant, the shortage adds another layer of worry. “There’s a lot to think about and worry about when you’re pregnant…and formula feels like something I should focus on at a later time,” she said. 

She said the formula shortage shouldn’t be happening in one of the world’s most wealthiest countries. 

“It makes me nervous and anxious to think there could literally be a scenario where I could be unable to feed my newborn, and not for the lack of financial resources but rather a colossal failure of our systems,” Foram said.  

Morgan Rachel's bags of breast milk that she's donating | Photo: Morgan Rachel | Design: theSkimm

Milk banks are seeing a major increase in demand


Milk banks are orgs that collect breast milk donations. And they prioritize babies who are medically fragile. But if there's a robust supply, they can provide to families who are seeking alternatives to formula. Lindsay Groff — executive director of the Human Milk Banking Association of North America — said there's been a major increase in donor milk interest across the country.

“We're hearing the desperation through the emails and phone calls,” Groff explained. “I can only imagine what it feels like to scramble and wonder what you're going to do right now. [Our association is] doing the best we can to help ease fears, provide emergency use where possible, and point desperate families in the right direction.”

Milk banks across the country have also seen a boost in donated milk. “Moms who are healthy and lactating have seen what is going on with the formula shortage, they have been calling us in record numbers to want to donate,” Linda Harelick, executive director of the New York Milk Bank, said. “That is just amazing and inspirational.”

Milk banks are also banding together to help each other out in some high demand areas. “We're trying to coordinate between several milk banks in different states for donors and for shipping milk out,” Summer Kelly, executive director of Mothers' Milk Bank of the Western Great Lakes, said. 

“I hope that people will go to our website to find the milk bank that's closest to them and inquire about how they can become a donor,” Groff said. “Babies are born every single day and babies with medical conditions need donor milk every day, whether formula is available or not. And so we need people to constantly consider donating their breast milk, just like they think about donating blood to a blood bank.”

Donors like Morgan Rachel from Wisconsin are stepping up and offering breast milk to others in need. She’s also posted to groups on social media to spread the word.

“The fact that I am still producing, and producing enough to help other people, I'm grateful for that,” she said. “For other moms that are thinking about donating or have the ability to produce more than they need, it is a great opportunity to help other women. Put yourself in their shoes.”

A Wisconsin Walmart's running empty on baby formula | Photo: Maria Corpus | Design: theSkimm

Health experts are working to comfort concerned families

Camila Martin is a pediatric clinical nutritionist at American Family Children’s Hospital in Madison, WI. She said health experts have been dealing with the shortage for months. And that means adjusting babies’ formula and fluid to make sure their nutritional needs are met. 

“We've had to provide new mixing instructions, get new orders placed for insurance to cover it,” she said. “We’ve helped give [parents] instructions and explain where they could find these alternatives. Which is one thing for us to do, but it's really the families that are impacted the most.”

Martin said the transition to a new formula isn’t always easy and has added a lot of stress to families who’ve had to try three or four different formulas. Note: Parents may need to try different ones because their baby might have certain allergies or reactions (think: belly issues, constipation, vomiting, rashes). But she said the experience has brought some positives.

“Even for some of my really sensitive kids, it's actually been really cool to see as we've had to make a switch to something else that they can actually tolerate much more than we were thinking,” she said.

Martin’s encouraging parents to explore alternatives. But strongly advised parents against making their own formula (more on that here) or watering down formula. It’s something lactation consultant Brianne Taggart also advises against. And said the shortage has opened families’ eyes to other options. 

“There's a different fit for every family,” she explained. “It's not like only breast milk, only formula, only donor milk. You can do a combination of different things safely and make it work for you and your baby.”

Taggart explained that more of her clients are exploring breastfeeding because of the shortage. And when it comes to relactation — the process of rebuilding your body’s milk supply — she said it’s not always a quick answer. And recommends people touch base with lactation consultants. 

Overall, Taggart believes the shortage is an opportunity for people to come together.

“We can approach it as a team and be like, ‘how can we help each other get through this?’” she said. “So it's not just resting on the shoulders of these families who are just trying to feed their babies.”

theSkimm

Babies are suffering amid a formula shortage in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. But alongside them are the parents and health experts who are trying to sustain these babies so they can grow up and be healthy. It's a major reminder of America's vulnerable systems. And the lack of a strong safety net to help keep families going during hard times.

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