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The Baby Formula Shortage: What’s a Parent to Do?

A baby formula shortage has parents and caretakers scrambling to feed their babies. Learn about the formula recall and what you can do to get the formula your family needs.

Recently, a trip down the infant formula aisle has changed considerably. Parents once faced with a dizzying array of infant formula choices, now stare nervously at empty shelves.

What has led to this shortage and what can formula-feeding parents do when their baby’s usual formula is not available?

The baby formula shortage has parents and healthcare professionals scrambling. Here's what you can do.

Why is there a Formula Shortage?

The infant formula shortage has its roots in monthslong supply chain disruptions that accelerated with the February 2022 recall of several specialty formulas made by Abbott.

Parents and health providers noticed temporary, scattered inventory shortfalls starting last fall. For example, CNN reported in November 2021 that Walgreens was experiencing frequent low stock.

However, the supply disruption wasn’t limited to retail stores. Hospitals were also experiencing intermittent problems with formula shortages last fall.

“It really started with just not knowing when to expect deliveries. It would put us in a bind a few times a week, depending on the formula we needed.”

Kelly Washington, a clinical nutrition manager in North Carolina.

By January 2022, the Wall Street Journal was reporting that formula inventory was lower because manufacturers were having trouble accessing ingredients to make their formulas.

And, like many other businesses, manufacturers experienced labor shortages.

(Related): What to Use in Place of Similac Pro-Total Comfort

Baby formula shortages are commonplace in Wisconsin.
Photo courtesy of Jessica Johnson

The Infant Formula Recall 2022

The manufacturing and labor shortages of 2021 caused some ripples in infant formula stock.

These grew to a tsunami wave in mid-February when Abbott Nutrition voluntary recalled certain powdered infant formulas due to consumer complaints of infection with two different bacteria, Cronobacter sakazakii or Salmonella Newport.

This recall centered on several, commonly used therapeutic formulas for infants and children, including EleCare® and Alimentum®.

While these formulas are specialized and used only under medical supervision, their removal from the market meant that alternatives needed to be found.

An entire Abbott plant has been shut down for over two months as a result, limiting not only the recalled formulas but other formulas made at that plant.

As we all learned with the 2020 toilet paper shortages, buying behaviors change when an important product is hard to get. Buying a bit more makes sense when it is the only food a baby may eat!

While shortages have been going on for months, they have become extreme in the past two weeks.  Jessica Johnson, a mom in Wisconsin, described on Facebook, after going to six stores and searching online in a 150-mile radius for baby formula.

“As I stood in in the empty aisle of Target, a young couple with a new baby stood next to me. The mom looked at her partner and said, “What are people supposed to do?” And I watched as they frantically checked their phones to see if they could find it online. The dad said “there’s nothing…”

Jessica Johnson, a mom from Wisconsin

Out of Stock! Advice for Families During the Baby Formula Shortage

If you’re struggling to find formula for your baby, keep these important tips in mind:

Avoid Homemade Recipes

Do not substitute another milk, like cow, goat or even oat, for an infant formula. Also, do not turn to homemade formulas. None of these are safe and can make an infant very ill.

Similarly, never water down formula to help it stretch or “go further.”  Infant nutrient needs are high for their smaller size. Even small deficits can cause health problems.

Be Flexible with Brands

Remember that all formulas meet the same nutrient guidelines. It is called “formula” for a reason! 

There is no evidence that one brand makes for a healthier baby than another. If you have been using well-known name brand formulas, consider using a store brand or private label formula.

Empty shelves of infant formula in Wisconsin.
Photo Courtesy of Jessica Johnson

Consider Using a Private Label (Store) Brand

Some parents are concerned that store brand formulas are low-grade or nutritionally inferior products. That is not the case!

Every private label formula meets all FDA and Infant Formula Act requirements. They are made using good manufacturing processes using the ingredients used in brand name formulas.

More than 60 retail stores have their own private label brands. All these formulas are made by the same company, Perrigo, which has made formula for over thirty years.  

For instance, the formula inside the Signature Care™ formula bought at Safeway is identical to the Tugaboos™ brand bought at Rite Aid.

Perrigo has put together a handy chart to help parents find alternatives.

Use Store Shopping Apps and Online Resources

These can be useful for searching stores that are outside your immediate area, but within reasonable driving distance.

Formula is sold in many places, including grocery stores, pharmacies, boutique stores, and other baby-focused stores.

Order Online

Manufacturer websites are starting to have some product available through their websites.

Two infant formula brands (Bobbie and ByHeart) are available only or almost exclusively online. You won’t find them in stores.

8 Tips for handling the baby formula shortage.

Ask Your Friends and Family to Help

Many parents are getting help from friends and family members to look in their local stores, especially non-chain grocery stores.

Please don’t dilute formula! If money is getting tight because you have needed to buy a more expensive brand, don’t hesitate to ask for help from the people you love you.

If you are providing both breast milk and infant formula, this is a time to ask family to help with any task that will lower your stress and help you continue providing breast milk.

Get Professional Help If You Get Stuck

If your baby is refusing a new formula, talk to your health provider for ideas of how to safely make it more appealing.

On the topic of flavor preferences, infants under four months of age tend to be less influenced by flavor than older infants are.

Pediatric dietitians can be very helpful with teaching safe strategies to help a baby accept a new formula. Moreover, health care providers may have access to formula to help carry you over until your preferred brand is more available again.

Be Patient with Tummy Troubles (and don’t expect them to happen)

Infant formula marketers have misled parents for many years by promoting switching formula to prevent or treat even the mildest of digestive changes.

This has set up the expectation that 1) there is a health risk for switching formulas and 2) that all changes in digestion are a problem.

Don’t fall for this marketing. Most mild digestive concerns resolve with time and not formula switching.

It is safe for healthy babies, even those with mild digestive concerns like gas, to change brands.

Even before formula shortages, some families switched between multiple formula brands due to price or because they wanted to provide a variety of flavors to their infant.

Certainly, no one wants to see their baby be uncomfortable.

If you see signs formula doesn’t agree with your baby, such as blood in the stool, vomiting, or diarrhea after introducing a new formula, call your baby’s pediatrician.

When Will the Formula Shortage Be Over?

Unfortunately, it isn’t clear how long these shortages will continue because multiple issues have contributed to them.

This uncertainty has led some parents to buy excessive quantities of formula when they do find their preferred brand, a behavior often called “hoarding.”

Squirreling away extra formula when it is short can make the shortages worse. The American Academy of Pediatrics is recommending parents buy no more than a 10-day supply right now. 

Want More Help with Feeding Your Baby?

The Nourished Child has books, booklets and classes to help you meet your infant’s nutritional needs and get started with positive feeding for a healthy relationship with food.

You may also be interested in:

Guest post by Lisa Richardson, founder of Formula Sense, a pediatric dietitian on a mission to improve lives by fostering nutrition literacy and science-informed feeding through education and tools that improve nutrition care.

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