Supply chain issues have created a nightmare for parents: There’s a baby formula shortage.
“Having a baby is one level of stress. Having a baby in a pandemic is another level. And then having to deal with something so basic as accessing the resources you need to feed your baby…it’s unsettling for parents,” said Dr. Kelly Fradin, a private practice pediatrician in New York City who shares parenting and health information on Instagram. “It feels unfair.”
The thought of not having enough formula for your baby can be concerning. And we wanted to help. So we reached out to both Dr. Fradin and Dr. Sara Siddiqui, a pediatrician at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone and Huntington Medical Group in New York. They answered our Qs about why formula’s important, how to get the right kind, and what to do — and not do — if the shelves in the baby section are bare.
Wait, why is there a baby formula shortage?
Major retailers, including Target, CVS, and Costco have been limiting the amount of baby formula parents could buy. While as much as 40% of baby formulas were out of stock toward the end of April. Part of the reason for the limited availability: Abbott, the largest manufacturer of baby formula in the US (behind major brands like Similac and EleCare), recalled a number of products in February that were tied to infant illnesses and contamination. The company also closed a Michigan plant. These steps drastically reduced the amount of formula available. (Only three US companies account for nearly all US formula sales.) Making it harder for families to find formula and, in some cases, more expensive. Think: The average cost of formula has increased as much as 18% in the last year, according to CBS.
On May 18, President Joe Biden took a big step to address the shortage by invoking the Defense Production Act. Which will require suppliers to prioritize sending ingredients to baby formula companies ahead of other customers. He’s also using US military aircrafts to speed up imports of baby formula. Note: The Defense Production Act is a tool presidents keep in their back pocket to use in times of crisis to exercise control over domestic industries.
Abbott said Tuesday that after reaching an agreement with the FDA to reopen the plant, it’s planning to restart work on June 4. With the first batches of certain products expected to reach shelves around June 20. In the meantime, the company said last week that it would continue to import formula from an FDA-registered facility in Ireland. The company said it would begin making Elecare, Alimentum, and other metabolic formulas first — before turning to Similac and other formulas.
Remind me: What exactly is baby formula?
Quick refresher: It’s a drink made for infants for their first year of life, to be used in place of — or in conjunction with — breastmilk. Formula first became available in 1865. And nearly 100 years later, the Infant Formula Act was passed to ensure that commercial formulas are regulated by the FDA. That means it contains a certain number of nutrients deemed necessary and safe for infants.. Formula is typically made from cow’s milk protein, but can also come from soy protein, hydrolysate, or other specialized ingredients.
Why do babies need formula? And when do they stop drinking it?
Major health organizations recommend that infants only eat breastmilk and/or formula from birth to about six months, before gradually being introduced to solid foods. And they can’t drink dairy or nut milk until they turn 12 months. But breastfeeding doesn’t work for everyone, which is why some parents just feed their newborns formula. Or they offer a combo of breastmilk and formula. Think: Only about 1 in 4 parents breastfeed babies exclusively up to 6 months, according to the CDC. Reasons for using formula vary. Think: You’re not producing enough milk, you used a surrogate (aka gestational carrier), you’re on specific medications that could make breastfeeding unsafe, or breastfeeding simply isn’t the right fit for you.
When does it make sense for parents to mix formula brands and types for their baby?
Some infant formulas “can be switched as needed,” said Dr. Siddiqui. But if a baby is doing well on a certain formula, Dr. Fradin recommended not swapping “unless you have to.” Because while some formulas might be similar (think: Similac and Infamil), slight changes in ingredients can “disrupt a baby’s system and lead them to be fussier,” she said.
But the formula shortage is leaving some parents without a choice. And if that’s the case for you, you might have to prioritize switching to other FDA-regulated formulas, Dr. Fradin said. (As opposed to European brands, which have become more popular in recent years. But aren’t subject to the same strict nutrient and storage guidelines as US brands.) So speak to your child’s pediatrician about any possible dietary changes.
How can formula allergies impact this decision?
If your baby has an allergy, then it could be “detrimental” to suddenly start using a different formula, Dr. Siddiqui said. She said that infants with a milk-protein intolerance or digestive concern should be on a specialized formula. “Your doctor should give you clear guidance on what brands are and aren’t acceptable,” Dr. Fradin said.
And here's info for parents of babies with rare metabolic disorders: Abbott said in a statement that, at the request of the FDA, it’s planning to release “limited quantities” of specialized “metabolic nutrition formulas” that weren’t included in its recall. The company said that the products will be free of charge, and that health care providers can call to request them.
What should parents know about milk banks?
They’re places where parents can access donated breast milk, but they’re also experiencing a drop in supply. Dr. Fradin said that they’re typically reserved for infants with medical needs. And Dr. Siddiqui advised that anyone considering a milk bank should investigate the preparation and handling process to avoid any potentially contaminated milk. You can find a local milk bank here, or ask your PCP or pediatrician for a referral.
If you have a surplus of breast milk, you can consider donating your extras to a milk bank. Or look into a shipping service like Milk Stork to send it to a specific person who needs it. Note: the service isn’t cheap. And keep in mind that it’s important to follow proper storage guidelines.
Is it a bad idea to water down baby formula so that it ‘lasts longer?’
Short answer: yes.
“Watering down, or diluting formula can result in improper electrolyte intake and can be very dangerous,” Dr. Siddiqui said. “As babies have immature digestive tracts, kidney function and liver function, they may become imbalanced over time.” In severe cases, a sodium or potassium imbalance can put the baby at risk of a seizure, both doctors warned.
What about homemade baby formula?
That’s another no-no. Because it’s nearly impossible to make something in your kitchen that meets the strict nutritional requirements and safety standards that FDA-approved formula does, Dr. Fradin said. And attempting it could cause “allergies, malnutrition, vomiting, and infections,” said Dr. Siddiqui.
What tips do you have for accessing baby formula amid the shortage?
Dr. Fradin recommended turning to your community for support. “This is a way in which social media can be really helpful,” she said. Members of your local parent Facebook and WhatsApp groups might post about nearby retailers that have new shipments of specific formula brands, or about having extra formula to give away.
Keep in mind: Hoarding might not be a good idea. Because “all formulas have expiration dates, and over-buying may lead to waste of resources,” Dr. Siddiqui said. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends buying no more than a two-week supply.
Another option for accessing formula: Ask your pediatrician to help connect you to local resources.
And remember: Although some major formula manufacturers are experiencing supply chain issues, comparable generic formulas — which must meet the same FDA regulations as name brands — might still be available and can often be used instead, Dr. Siddiqui said.
The baby formula shortage is the latest challenge that new pandemic parents have had to deal with. But if you’re scrambling to feed your baby, you’re not alone. And you shouldn’t be. Connect with your community and doctor to help source the formula you need.
Updated May 17 to include Abbott's announcement that it had come to an agreement with the FDA to reopen its Michigan baby formula plant.
Updated May 19 to include President Joe Biden's invocation of the Defense Production Act.
Updated May 25 with new info on Abbott's Michigan plant reopening.