Tips for Navigating the Formula Shortage Crisis

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By Dr. Dale Volquartsen, Pediatrician

Many parents today are faced with difficult decisions concerning the feeding of their infants in the midst of what is now a crisis due to the shortage of infant formula. As with most crises, there are numerous factors that play into the shortage.  For one, as the nation is emerging from the pandemic and there has been a significant increase in demand that was not anticipated. For another unexpected reason, fewer mothers are electing to nurse their children and that’s increasing the demand for formula. The largest factor, however, is the closure of a factory in Michigan where Abbott produces a large portion of their formula. In 2021, there were four infants, two of which who died, who are believed to have been made ill by consuming formula that became contaminated with bacteria from that factory. In February, that formula was recalled and the factory was closed. It is expected to reopen soon, but the supply will likely take about two months to reach the shelves.

This shortage may be leaving families feeling desperate and willing to turn to potentially dangerous alternatives.

Avoid these common mistakes:

  1. Please do not attempt to make your own formula. Right now, the internet is being flooded with people promoting different formula recipes. This is not a new phenomenon and has resulted in bad outcomes for infants in the past. Too much protein can harm an infant’s kidneys and liver. Inadequate electrolytes such as sodium have resulted in seizures and death. Inadequate fat and sugar content has a lasting effect on brain health and development. These are just a few of the bad outcomes from these imbalanced alternatives.
  2. Do not water down formula to make it “stretch”. The baby will get inadequate calories and the lower electrolytes can lead to seizures and death.
  3. I recommend that whole cow’s milk only be introduced after the first birthday. After six months of age, a day or two may be acceptable but only as the very last resort. The protein is more difficult for an infant to digest and cow’s milk increases the risk of iron deficiency.
  4. Plant-based milk alternatives are never appropriate alternatives for infants. Even though the ingredient labels may be similar to cow’s milk formulas, the actual ingredients are different in function. This means that the infant’s body does not metabolize and use those ingredients the same way.
  5. Toddler formulas are significantly different than infant formulas and should not be used except in older infants and only after all other options have been exhausted.
  6. The FDA and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that you do not purchase formula imported from outside America. There are numerous reasons for this, but the primary concerns include the difference consumer protection rules, shipping concerns and language/labeling risks. The importing of formula is also highly regulated, making it more difficult and expensive to procure.
  7. Avoid the temptation to hoard formula when you find it. This is actually part of the reason we are in such short supply. Early in the pandemic, there was widespread hoarding. This was followed by a significant decrease in demand the following year since there were ample supplies in homes. With the decreased demand, the formula companies did not accurately predict the demand for this current year.

So, what is a mom to do in the face of this shortage? There are no simple answers, but here are some recommendations:

  1. If able, rely on nursing as much as possible. No formula can hold a candle to the milk a mother provides for her infant. Even if you are only able to provide a few ounces a day, that may make a big difference for your baby. Contact a lactation consultant in the case you may even be able to help a mother re-lactate.
  2. Look in smaller stores where the shortage may not have had such a large impact.
  3. For most babies, switching to a different formula or brand will not be a problem. However, if you have your baby on a special formula, ensure you speak with your pediatrician before making a switch. Samples of the proper formula may be available.  Your pediatrician will also ensure that the options chosen are healthy and appropriate.  Further, anyone needing a specialized formula can call Abbott at 1-800-881-0876 to request a formula on a case by case basis.
  4. If you qualify for WIC, be sure to enroll as they are the single largest customer purchasing infant formulas. SNAP (food stamps) and food banks may also be a solution. Here in the Florida Panhandle, you can call 2-1-1 to be connected with public services and nonprofits that that may be able to help.
  5. There may be some community groups that are working with families as well. They will often coordinate through social media outlets.

I am confident that we will get through this crisis. Why?  Because we know we have excellent parents caring for their children.  We, the pediatricians of White-Wilson, are here to help all of you through this time and to help you make the best choices for your growing child.  Don’t hesitate to reach out to your pediatrician for any questions or concerns you have.

Dr. Dale Volquartsen is a board-certified pediatrician with more than 30-years’ experience caring for children. Dr. Volquartsen cares for patients at White-Wilson Medical Center in DeFuniak Springs, Florida where he is accepting new patients.