Baby Formula Shortages Are Scary. Here's What Parents Should Know
In the United States, fewer than half of all infants are exclusively breastfed for the first three months of life. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in five babies needs formula within the first five days after birth. By the time the six-month mark comes around, 75 percent of babies have had at least some formula.
For parents of babies who are unable to breastfeed for one reason or another, a formula shortage is scary. When you run to the store to pick some up only to find bare shelves, what do you do?
Take a deep breath. Let's break down why the baby formula shortage is happening and how to get by in the meantime.
What's Causing the Shortage, and When Will It End?
It all started back in September 2021. A baby in Minnesota contracted a serious infection with the bacteria Cronobacter sakazakii, which can be lethal. It was traced to baby formula, which had been manufactured in a large factory owned by Abbot, one of the biggest manufacturers of infant formula in the country.
Four more babies fell ill from the contaminated formula in the months that followed. Tragically, two infants in Ohio died from Cronobacter infection, while another was hospitalized for weeks.
A former Abbott employee informed the FDA that sanitation standards in the factory were not being met by a long shot. Following an inspection, Abbott recalled multiple batches of infant formula under popular brand names, and shut down production at the site altogether.
The recall and closure is what started the shortage, and formula hoarding has only made it worse. As we observed in 2020 with toilet paper, panicking leads to empty shelves and desperation. Some stores have enforced a three formula purchase limit per visit to prevent hoarding, yet finding formula remains hit or miss.
The White House is well aware of the issue, and action has already been taken to bring anxious parents relief. "Operation Fly Formula" began on May 22, 2022, with a military plane delivering 500,000 bottles' worth of specialty formula. Another shipment should come soon.
Hopefully, it's enough. While you wait, there's no need to panic. Safe formula is available. It just might be a little harder to find than usual.
Generic Formula Alternatives Are Totally Safe
The good news? If the brand your baby is used to isn't available, a generic formula is completely fine. Every formula sold in the U.S. must meet the same nutritional requirements stipulated by the Infant Formula Act and the FDA.
That means Walmart, Target or Kroger brand formula is just as nutritious and safe as one from Gerber or Similac. There's a good chance they were even produced in the same plant.
Their exact ingredients may differ from formula to formula, however. Some babies are allergic to certain proteins or ingredients, requiring specialized formula. If your baby is used to soy-free, lactose-free or hypoallergenic formula, a sudden change can cause digestive upset.
To find out which generic formula is the most similar to your baby's specialty formula, consult your pediatrician for recommendations.
Whatever You Do, Don't Try to Make Your Own Formula
We get it. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Making baby formula from scratch, however, is where we draw the line. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, homemade baby formula isn't just less nutritious. It's dangerous.
Firstly, babies have much different nutritional needs than adults do. Infant formula was created to meet those needs by mimicking the nutrients in breast milk. The same can't be said for a homemade version prepared with cow's milk, hemp or soy.
Store-bought ingredients used in homemade formula are also more likely to contain contaminants that can make infants seriously ill.
Don't water down formula either, or try to swap it with toddler formula.
How to Track Down Baby Formula Near You
If homemade isn't an option, what are you supposed to do if you run out of formula and can't find the right one near you?
- First, try contacting your nearest Community Action Agency. Your local CAA branch should be able to help you find out where formula is available, or provide it to you if they have it on hand.
- Call 211. United Way’s 2-1-1 helps low-income families find food pantries with available infant formula and baby food.
- Find an accredited milk bank. The Human Milk Banking Association of North America was created to safely distribute donated breast milk to babies in need. A prescription from your pediatrician might be required.
- Contact your local WIC office. For those eligible for WIC, call to find sources of formula near you.
- Contact your baby's pediatrician. They can recommend safe alternative formula options that are similar to your infant's usual formula, or potentially offer in-office samples to hold you over.
- Treat formula like gold. Don't toss it out unless it's part of a recall.
A formula shortage is tough, but it won't last forever. Hang in there, parents.