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Baby Formula Shortage Crisis: What can concerned parents do?

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As a pediatrician, I understand the concerns that many parents face about the nationwide baby formula shortage. The shortage has put parents across the country on edge as they scramble to find ways to feed their children. The crisis, caused by ongoing supply chain issues during the COVID-19 pandemic coupled with the closure of three Abbott-owned plants due to a voluntary recall earlier this year, has not made it any easier on parents.

COVID-19 triggered the initial shortage since it didn’t allow production to be at 100 percent, which resulted in everyone stockpiling supplies, including baby formula, back in 2020. Subsequent supply chain issues aggravated the problem with shortages on supplies to make formula. Then, a bacterial infection associated with one type of baby formula was found this year, causing a recall on this major brand.

Undoubtedly, the infant formula shortage is making parents desperate. Because of this, I am concerned that they may not want to bother their pediatrician, and instead resort to other alternatives that they think are safe in order to feed their baby. Although parents may have good intentions for their child, certain things like watering down formula, making baby formula at home, or buying formula from untrusted sources, can lead to bad consequences. As pediatricians, your child’s safety is one of our main concerns.

So, what can parents do if they have trouble finding formula for their child? Below, I answer some of the most frequently asked questions about the infant formula shortage crisis and offer some advice for parents.

What should parents do if they can’t find their baby’s formula?
I would suggest that they contact their child’s health care provider. Your health care provider may have samples in their offices or can connect with the formula manufacturers. As a precaution, babies under 12 months of age should not be given cow’s milk as this can cause anemia, which happens when one has low red blood cells, prohibiting adequate oxygen to get to the rest of the body. However, new guidance has been released that, in a pinch, babies over six months of age could utilize cow’s milk for a short time coupled with an infant multivitamin with iron. If a parent chooses this route, they should consult with their pediatrician to make them aware.

Are there any safe “homemade” baby formula alternatives?
At this time, pediatric providers, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) do not recommend any “homemade” baby formula alternatives as there is a risk for contamination that can lead to food borne illnesses and cause dehydration. Additionally, homemade formulas may not supply all the nutrients and vitamins (i.e., they may have too little or too much of certain nutrients) that we know are needed to optimize an infant’s growth and development.

What can I do if my child needs a specialty formula?
There are many children out there who need specialty formulas due to specific food allergies. Right now, pediatricians are working directly with manufacturers to help get specialty formula for patients. Parents who need specialty formula should consult a pediatrician first who will contact the manufacturer who will then reach out to the parent directly. It will be faster than if a parent tries to contact the manufacturer themselves.  In addition, the AAP is helping kids who need specialty formula connect directly with manufacturers to make sure they get the formula they need. I highly recommend asking your pediatrician if your child needs specialty formula.

How can I safely transition babies between formulas (if needed)?
The good news is that most babies can transition safely from one formula to another. Some babies may be pickier and not drink as much, but within a week, their appetite will usually be back to normal. It is very important not to try and substitute non-human milk (cows, nut, oat, goat, etc.,) in place of infant formula as it lacks important nutrients for an infant’s physical and neurological development.

If you’re searching for a safe substitute for your regular baby formula, switching formula brands or turning to breastmilk donation banks may be among the best options for you and your baby.

What are things I should avoid during the infant formula shortage?

  • Do not try to make your own formula. Homemade formulas can have too many or not enough nutrients, or too much water that babies can’t break down. There are also contamination risks.
  • Do not dilute or ration your formula to make it last longer. This will make the mixture too low in vitamins and nutrients that your baby needs. Also, changing the ratio of formula to water can be extremely dangerous for infants and lead to water intoxication and electrolyte imbalances.
  • Do not purchase formulas from untrusted sources like online marketplaces. Instead, consult with your baby’s pediatrician if you can’t find the formula that your baby usually uses. There are also good resources online from the CDC and AAP that can provide you with helpful information.
  • Do not overproduce the formula your child actually needs. If a baby is only drinking a 6-ounce bottle at a time, then parents or caregivers shouldn’t make an 8-ounce bottle. In many cases, parents will make an 8-ounce bottle because it is easier, but they are wasting the extra few ounces. Babies that are at least four months old need between 20 ounces and 32 ounces of formula a day. If a baby is drinking more than 32 ounces, parents or caregivers should talk to their pediatrician about how to increase solids into their diet.

Do you foresee any end in sight to the baby formula shortage?

While manufacturing is starting to ramp up – which is reassuring news – the hysteria is making the crisis worse. However, I am cautiously optimistic that an end to the shortage is in sight, although it might take a few months. Until that happens, it is more important than ever for parents to work with their child’s pediatrician.

By Dr. Victoria Regan, pediatrician, Children’s Memorial Hermann Pediatrics

 

 

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