There’s been a significant shortage of baby formula in the U.S. over the last year, in part due to COVID-19. But a recent bacterial contamination caused a recall that also greatly impacted these shortages, creating concern for parents trying to keep their kids fed. With the number of U.S. births increasing for the first time in seven years, finding food for our newborn children is crucially important.
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To solve the shortage crisis, some parents are traveling far from their homes to look for baby formula, only to discover empty shelves when they arrive at big box stores. Other parents have attempted to make their own formulas at home. But doctors are strongly urging against made-at-home formulas because they can cause issues for your child.
“The baby formula shortage is very concerning,” agrees primary care pediatrician Kimberly Giuliano, MD. “There are stores that are empty and there are stores that have small amounts of a limited supply of formula. This is making it incredibly challenging for families to find the food they need for their babies.”
Dr. Giuliano explains what you can do if you’re having difficulty finding baby formula and why you shouldn’t create formula at home alone.
Solutions for finding baby formula
There are ways you can improve your search for baby formula, especially if you’re unable to find any close to home. Here are some potential solutions that can help you locate what you need.
Search in less densely populated areas
If you’re able, travel outside of your normal search area to smaller towns and less obvious stores. Try pharmacies, mom-and-pop shops, food banks and smaller retailers to find the formula you’re looking for. “Neighborhoods that are less densely populated or have fewer babies may have higher supply availability,” says Dr. Giuliano. “It couldn’t hurt to make some phone calls to those areas or make some short road trips.”
Try purchasing formula from reputable online sources
Contact formula manufacturers directly for online availability. Try reputable, online markets like Amazon or Walmart instead of purchasing formula from secondhand, unknown sources online. “There is a concern that folks could be marketing nonapproved formulas and taking advantage of the situation,” warns Dr. Giuliano. “You should go to those firsthand distributors you’ve grown to trust.”
Check in with your pediatrician’s office
If you’re not sure where to look for formula, you can always call your pediatrician’s office. They could point you in the right direction or tell you if they have any extra formula in stock. But, fair warning: This has been a go-to solution for weeks now, so don’t be discouraged if your pediatrician doesn’t have formula to provide. “I wouldn’t be surprised if most pediatrician offices have depleted their supplies from families calling to ask that very question,” says Dr. Giuliano.
Should you accept breast milk from community members or people you don’t know?
Despite Food and Drug Administration (FDA) concerns, online community members are offering up their breast milk and formula solutions to mothers in need. But Dr. Giuliano says this can be quite dangerous.
“We worry about infections the mother could have. There are toxins she might have ingested, including drugs, medications and other chemicals in her environment that could enter into the milk. These could then be unknowingly given to the baby,” explains Dr. Giuliano. “We also have concerns about the storage process. If milk spends too much time at room temperature, too much time in a refrigerator or even too much time in a freezer, it can throw off the nutritional balance and lead to bacterial growth.”
Instead, Dr. Giuliano suggests seeking out a breast milk donor bank where donors are screened for drugs, medications and infections. They also test the milk for bacterial contamination and store it at appropriate temperatures to minimize risk.
Can you start lactating again if you stopped or avoided breastfeeding altogether?
It’s possible to start breastfeeding again once you’ve stopped or even if you never breastfed at all. But the process of relactation can be challenging.
“It takes a lot of time and dedication to be successful,” says Dr. Giuliano. “Usually when moms reintroduce lactation, their milk supply is smaller than what it would have been if they had been breastfeeding all along.”
This process could take up to a couple of weeks for a mother to begin producing milk, so keep that in mind if you’re struggling. Plus, your baby will probably still need some sort of formula supplementation to make up for the lack of nutrients along the way.
Can you mix different formula brands?
Absolutely. If you have a small amount of multiple kinds of formula, it can’t hurt to mix and match to make your supplies last. To do this effectively, especially for children who have more sensitive digestive tracts, you should start with a mixture that’s 50% or 75% of your routine formula and 25% to 50% of your newer formula. This will reduce the likelihood of excess gas, constipation, difficulty digesting, fussiness or frustration.
What if your infant needs a special formula?
A variety of conditions can cause babies to need a specialized formula. Sometimes, babies will develop allergies to cow’s milk proteins or soy. Others may have certain metabolic conditions that make it difficult to process different kinds of carbohydrates or proteins.
“Your pediatrician might have a supply on hand of specialty formulas,” suggests Dr. Giuliano. “Many manufacturers have set up hotlines to help families with specialized formula needs, too.”
When can you replace baby formula with solid food?
It’s recommended for babies to continue drinking breast milk or formula until they’re 1 year old. But babies as young as 4 months old can start to have solid foods in addition to formula.
Typically, pediatricians suggest introducing solid foods between 4 months and 6 months of age so your baby can develop tolerance to different tastes and textures. But if you’re going to introduce solid foods, your baby should be able to:
- Hold their head up straight independently without the support of a chair.
- Keep food in their mouths without spitting it out.
- Roll their tongue back to swallow.
One important thing to note: Solid foods still aren’t as nutritional as most formulas.
“Babies need to eat much larger volumes of solid food in order to get the nutrition they need as opposed to drinking formula,” says Dr. Giuliano. “It’s challenging for small babies to eat enough solid food to have benefits.”
If you’re looking to introduce solid foods early, Dr. Giuliano suggests using solid food only in addition to formula to help your supply last longer. For babies 4 months to 6 months old, you can use solid food once per day alongside formula.
“Once your baby is about 7 to 8 months old, you can look at two solid feedings per day,” says Dr. Giuliano. “At 9 months old, your baby can start doing three solid meals per day.”
Is cow’s milk, goat’s milk or toddler formula a safe alternative to baby formula?
Dr. Giuliano strongly urges against the use of goat milk.
“Goat’s milk has too much protein for their body to handle,” warns Dr. Giuliano. “Too much protein — as well as some other vitamins and mineral imbalances — can put a lot of stress and strain on the kidneys. This makes your baby urinate more. As your baby urinates more, they lose some of the electrolytes their body needs and they start to get dehydrated.”
Cow’s milk, soy milk and toddler formula can be used as a short-term solution for babies nearing their one-year birthday until you’re able to find formula. If you use any of these options, Dr. Giuliano suggests only using it for short, two-week intervals.
“The longer you go with cow’s milk, soy milk or toddler formula, the less protein and adequate nutrition balance a child is going to get,” she continues. “As soon as you have the availability to switch back to a formula recommended for infants, we would certainly encourage you to do that.”
Is it safe to make your own baby formula?
This sounds like it would be a simple, smart solution, but it’s not as beneficial as you’d think.
“The ratios of proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals that go into infant formula are nearly impossible to replicate in a home kitchen,” says Dr. Giuliano. “Even prior to this formula shortage, we have seen babies on homemade formulas who have electrolyte imbalances that lead to hospitalization, and in a few scenarios, death.”
It is NOT recommended to create your own baby formula at home for two main reasons:
At-home formula could negatively impact your baby’s immune system and cause infection
Our immune system is constantly developing. Most of our immune system development occurs within our first 12 months of life.
“This development happens in our blood system and in our gastrointestinal tract, where we have some immune responses and some good bacteria that are growing and developing to help serve as a line of defense,” explains Dr. Giuliano. “That ongoing development of our immune system is what makes infants that much more susceptible to infections and contaminated products.”
And if you happen to pick up harmful bacteria anywhere in the process, it could greatly affect your baby’s health and development.
At-home formula doesn’t provide enough nutrients
Babies need high amounts of protein and fat to keep up with a growing and developing body.
“Babies also need a very fine-tuned balance of a large variety of vitamins and minerals. Replicating that is very challenging,” says Dr. Giuliano. “When those ratios and quantities are thrown off, that’s when a baby would potentially be at risk for some imbalances.”
How do you know if your baby isn’t getting enough nutrients?
“If your baby is looking thinner than usual, if your baby is less active or if your baby is more fussy or more sleepy, these could all be potential signs of a nutrition or electrolyte imbalance,” says Dr. Giuliano.
If you’re noticing any of these symptoms, you should contact your pediatrician and request an evaluation.
Helpful resources for parents
Caring for your infant during a formula shortage can be incredibly stressful and challenging, but there are several resources available to help you through this difficult time, including:
- WIC Waivers: Most states are providing WIC waivers for parents to buy various infant formulas in different sizes. You can access this helpful tool to determine what your state is currently allowing.
- Call 211:The United Way’s hotline is your local connection to free formula and discounted formula for families in need, as well as food banks and community donations.
- Healthychildren.org: Run by the American Academy of Pediatrics, this site provides frequent updates as new developments unfold with the formula shortage and other infant-, child- and adolescent-related news.