If you’ve become a new mama any time in the last few years, you know that the challenges have been greater than ever. Any parent will tell you that no matter how you decide to feed your baby has its own unique challenges, and the fear of being unable to provide enough to eat for your child is very real!
If you have been impacted by the formula shortage, here’s a primer on what’s going on, and advice on how to navigate this difficult time. Real talk: it’s not good. But, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it seems like we’re on our way out of a very tough spot.
Why is there a baby formula shortage?
Since the COVID-19 outbreak, there have been significant shortages of infant formula due to the same supply chain issues we’ve all felt in every area of our lives the past two years. However, the situation escalated dramatically in February when Abbott Nutrition, one of the country’s largest formula producers, voluntarily recalled formula and closed one of its production facilities in Sturgis, Michigan.
What can I do if I run out of baby formula?
If you’re caught in a bind without formula, don’t panic. There are several options and resources available.
Most babies will adapt to switching between different brands of formula, including store brands, as long as they're the same type, like cow's milk-based, soy, hypoallergenic (extensively hydrolyzed), or elemental (amino acid-based). Keep in mind that your baby may seem to not like the taste, or may have a hard time tolerating a different formula, initially. If this happens:
- Try slowly introducing small amounts of the new formula by mixing it with your regular formula. Slowly increase the amount of the new formula over time.
- Be patient, since it may take some time for your baby to get used to it.
- If your baby is vomiting, has gas pains, is crying or can't be calmed down during feedings, is losing weight, has diarrhea, has blood or mucus in their poop, or is straining to poop, they may not be tolerating the new formula. Call your pediatrician or other health care provider if you have questions.
If you need help figuring out which formulas you may be able to substitute, your pediatrician or other health care provider is always the best resource because they know your baby and their health history. You can also check this list of comparable formulas developed by an organization of pediatric gastroenterologists called NASPGHAN. This list focuses on substitutes for formulas that were part of the February 2022 recall, so you might not see your baby's formula listed here. Any substitution should only be done under the recommendation and supervision of your pediatrician or other healthcare provider
Because this is a nationwide formula shortage, you can also consider buying formulas made outside of the United States in U.S. stores. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has allowed these formula companies to market certain products in the United States, and may allow more infant formula products that meet its criteria for exercising enforcement discretion. When preparing formula made in other countries:
- Read the mixing instructions carefully for preparing powdered formulas. They may require different amounts of powder or water than formulas made in the U.S.
- Use the FDA's conversion chart to convert milliliters to fluid ounces and common conversions from Celsius (°C) to Fahrenheit (°F).
However, consumers should be vigilant when buying formula that’s made outside of the U.S. from online marketplaces, as it has the potential to be counterfeit. Learn more about how to spot counterfeit infant formula.
Talk to Your Pediatrician or Other Health Care Provider.
If you need hypoallergenic or medical specialty formula, it may be harder to find a substitute. Talk to your pediatrician or other health care provider about acceptable substitutes. Depending on which formula they need, they may be able to submit an urgent request for specialized formula to Abbott Nutrition, which is releasing some specialty and low-iron formulas on a case-by-case basis.
Feed Your Baby Safe Short-Term Alternatives
If you can't find enough formula, there may be some short-term options that can help in an urgent situation. For instance, if you can’t find any formula and your baby is older than 6 months, talk to your pediatrician or other health care provider about using whole cow’s milk as a short-term option. If you can’t find any formula and your baby is close to one year old, talk to your pediatrician or other health care provider about using soy milk or a toddler drink for a few days.
You should also know about serious safety concerns related to certain alternative preparations for feeding your baby. Always talk to your pediatrician or other health care provider first if you don't have enough formula to feed your baby.
Explore Resources for Breast Milk or Breastfeeding
Whether your baby has been breastfed or had human milk before, it might be worth talking with your pediatrician or other health care provider about using human milk from a human milk bank. If possible, consider a local milk bank that is accredited through the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA). Keep in mind that most of the milk from milk banks is given to hospitalized babies, and they may not have enough to serve healthy babies at all times.
Sharing human breast milk with friends or purchasing it on the internet is not recommended. When you get human breast milk from friends or through the internet, it's hard to know if the donor was screened for infectious disease or contamination risk. There could also be safety risks related to how the milk was collected, processed, tested, or stored.
For families who are using both breast milk and formula, consider shifting more of your baby’s diet to breast milk. This could mean you need to increase your breast milk supply. You can do this by breastfeeding your baby more frequently or by adding pumping sessions between breastfeedings. Pumped milk can be kept in a refrigerator and stored frozen for later use. If providing breast milk is challenging, consult a local lactation consultant for more personalized support. Additionally, the CDC provides resources for breastfeeding support for mothers who are breastfeeding.
Avoid Unsafe Formula Practices and Buying More Than You Need
While there is plenty you can do during this formula shortage, there are also several things you should avoid.
Don't try to make formula at home. There are serious health and safety concerns with homemade formula. Your baby's nutritional needs are very specific, especially in the first year of life. Homemade formula may contain too little or too much of certain vitamins and minerals, like iron. Homemade formula also increases the risk of contamination, which could make your baby sick or lead to infection.
Don't water down formula. It seems like it might be a good way to stretch low supply, but adding more water can take nutrients away from your baby and lead to serious health problems, like seizures.
Don't use formula past the "best by" or "use by" date. The formula may not be safe and may have lost some of its nutrients.
Don't buy more formula than you need. The shortage is affecting families who are already navigating the stress of parenting during a pandemic. It can be tempting to buy as much formula as possible right now, but the AAP suggests buying no more than a 10-14 day supply to help improve shortages.
When will the baby formula shortage end?
FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf recently told lawmakers that although the situation continues to improve, it will take as early as July for shelves to be fully stocked. There are a few different initiatives in place that will hopefully help get formula available as quickly as possible.
For starters, President Biden has implemented the Defense Production Act to mandate that manufacturers help increase production of formula, the Department of Defense is using aircraft to fly formula to the United States from other countries, and the FDA has loosened some of its requirements for formula manufactured abroad in order to speed up the inspection process and get formula from other countries available more quickly.
The FDA also recently announced steps that will lead to tens of millions of additional bottles of infant formula, including specialty infant formula that is in short supply for infants with certain allergies or critical health conditions. But, it will still be months until we see significant relief for families.
Another major development in the right direction is that Abbott will be reopening its factory in Michigan. On May 16, the FDA and Abbott reached an agreement to restart production at the company's Michigan facility, which should help ease the shortage. However, it can take six to eight weeks after the start of production until the newly-produced formula appears in stores.
The bottom line is that Abbott carries a huge portion of the market — nearly 50% — and with one of their four factories down, the national supply of formula will be severely impacted until that factory is up and running again.
While help is on the way, and the near future looks a lot brighter, it doesn’t make the current situation any easier for new parents. When in doubt, tap into your village and lean on your fellow mamas for resources and support.