How to Navigate the National Formula Shortage

Finding infant formula during a national shortage is stressful, but this information can help families in Chicagoland feed their kids.

The nationwide shortage of baby formula is forcing families to consider a difficult question: What do you do when you can’t feed your infant?

For parents of infants who cannot breastfeed, infant formula is vital to keeping a baby nourished and healthy. Babies cannot eat anything else — especially not homemade or diluted formula, say medical professionals.

Finding infant formula has been challenging for families, says Alexandra Danko, a nurse practitioner and lactation counselor for Henry Ford Health System in Metro Detroit.

“Pretty much daily, we are getting inquiries about where families can purchase formulas from,” Danko says. “So that is something our population has been affected by.”

The formula shortage began with supply chain issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic, but evolved into a national crisis after a life-threatening bacteria was found in formula produced by Abbott Nutrition — one of the largest formula producers in the nation — and its facilities in Sturgis, Michigan, closed temporarily.

Why is the formula shortage so impactful?

For families who are not breastfeeding, infant formula is the only nutritionally-appropriate food choice for a child under the age of 1, says Poj Lysouvakon, the pediatric director of the Well Baby Unit and an associate professor of pediatrics at UChicago. “Formula in this country is controlled by the FDA (and) formula is formulated to have the right mix of nutrition and calories.”

Roughly 30% of babies under six months were given formula either as a supplement to breastfeeding or instead of breastfeeding, data collected by the CDC found.

For those families who rely on infant formula, the empty shelves in the grocery store pose a huge risk.

What shouldn’t families do when faced with the formula shortage?

First and foremost, the American Academy of Pediatrics says caregivers should never dilute formula to make it last longer, attempt to make their own infant formula nor feed cow’s or goat’s milk to a baby under six months old.

Diluting infant formula can change the level of sodium in an infant’s brain, which can cause seizures, something that Lysouvakon has unfortunately seen. Using powdered milk as a substitute, a common base for homemade recipes online, is also not safe.

Due to the formula shortage, however, certain things that would not be typically recommended are being considered. Children over six months of age may be given cow’s milk for no more than one week, as the cow’s milk does not contain enough iron, says the AAP.

Using formula from other countries that is not FDA-approved also carries risks, says Lysouvakon.

“Do not use imported formulas not improved by the federal government,” he says. “We don’t know if it’s being made in a safe environment.”

What resources are available for families looking for formula?

“Your best source is your pediatrician,” says Lysouvakon. Pediatricians can give families information about accredited milk banks, WIC office numbers, which may know which accredited stores have formula in stock, and other helpful knowledge on what to do when low on formula.

Pediatricians sometimes have access to formula samples to give to patients, too, as is the case for some Henry Ford Health System sites, says Danko. Looking at larger stores like Costco or Sam’s Club and buying generic formula has also worked for some families, she says.

The other option for families is finding a breast milk donor, but Danko says using donated breast milk requires the recipient to do some research.

“Have a conversation with the donor to make sure the breast milk is considered safe,” she says. “Some things to ask include what their lifestyle looks like, recreational drug use, if they are taking any medications that could harm the breast milk and do they have the capacity to store the breast milk at the proper storage requirements.”

While the formula shortage has caused a huge amount of stress for families who rely on it, there are other parents looking to help like the mothers with excess breast milk who have offered it to others on social media.

“Leveraging your social networks via social media can be a source of help,” Lysouvakon says.

In Chicago, the Mother’s Milk Bank of the Western Great Lakes is available to the public.

Using donated milk that has not been screened comes with risks. Accredited milk banks pasteurize and screen donated breast milk, so if you acquire breast milk from a donor, talk to your pediatrician about steps to do at home to make it safer.

The Department of Health & Human Services suggests locating the nearest Community Action Agency, calling United Way’s 2-1-1, and looking to see if an accredited milk bank is near you if families still need help locating food for their baby.

You may also find donated breastmilk near Chicago at the following locations:

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