The baby formula shortage has left store shelves bare across much of the U.S., with many parents desperately trying to find solutions.
The formula industry was already struggling with COVID-related supply chain issues, but the situation worsened in recent months after Abbott Nutrition, a major manufacturer, announced a recall of select lots of Similac, Alimentum and EleCare products. At least four infants were sickened with bacterial infections after consuming formula from the same Michigan manufacturing plant. Two of the babies died. (Abbott said its formula is “not likely the source of infection.” The Food and Drug Administration is investigating.)
In April, out-of-stock levels for baby formula reached 30% at retailers across the country. By May, that number was up to 43%, according to the data analytics firm Datassembly.
For the millions of parents and caregivers whose babies rely on formula for their nutrition, whether partially or completely, this is a hugely frustrating and stressful situation — and it’s even worse for families that require a specific formula due to allergies or other health conditions.
We asked a pediatrician and a pediatric nurse practitioner for expert advice on what to do if you can’t find your usual formula.
Check smaller stores.
If large chains like Target, Walmart, CVS and grocery stores are sold out of your usual formula, you might have more luck finding it at a smaller local retailer.
“Think about small ‘mom and pop’ stores that are not as popular as a larger stores,” Karen L. Gentile, a pediatric nurse practitioner at National Jewish Health, told HuffPost. “Since these stores tend to be less frequented, they will be more likely to have formula in stock.”
Also consider purchasing formula online from a trusted retailer. Visit formula company websites and utilize the “where to buy” search function so you can ensure it’s a reputable seller, Gentile added.
Switch to a different brand.
Generally speaking, the ingredients in formula are similar across different brands of the same type of formula — in other words from one cow’s milk-based formula (the type recommended for most babies) to another, or from one soy-based formula to another.
Once you’ve found a brand of formula that works well for your child, changing may not be ideal. But for most babies, it is “completely safe” to make a switch, Gentile said, “as long as your baby is not on a medically prescribed formula — for example, hydrolyzed or amino acid-based formula.” If your child is on one of these hypoallergenic formulas, consult your pediatrician before switching.
To minimize any digestive troubles, Gentile recommends transitioning slowly by combining some of the old formula with some of the new formula.
Consider store-brand formulas like Target’s Up & Up, Walmart’s Parent’s Choice and online brands like Amazon’s Mama Bear, which may be easier to find, said Dr. Jen Trachtenberg, a pediatrician at Carnegie Hill Pediatrics and assistant clinical professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
The store brands “all meet the FDA requirements for nutrition standards for your baby to get the nutrients needed for growth and development,” Trachtenberg said.
“If you’re unsure what is similar to what your baby uses, don’t hesitate to reach out to your pediatrician,” she added.
You can also switch from a powder formula to a concentrate or ready-to-feed formula if one of those varieties is more readily available in your area, Trachtenberg said.
“Powder is the most inexpensive, but needs to be mixed with water, as does the liquid concentrate,” Trachtenberg said. “Ready-to-feed is just that no mixing or added water necessary.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend purchasing imported European formula brands online, as some parents have been doing during the shortage. These formulas, which are often more expensive, are not FDA-approved, though that could change in the future.
“I don’t usually recommend buying European brands for a variety of reasons — even without a shortage,” said Trachtenberg, who is also a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Instructions on preparation and scoop sizes may be different than in U.S., there could be issues with temperature control and transportation, recalls from outside USA may not be known, and some European formulas may have different levels of nutrients — for example, lower in iron than required in the U.S.”
Ask if your pediatrician has samples.
Major formula companies like Enfamil and Similac often send cans of formula to pediatricians as free samples for patients’ families. It’s worth calling your child’s doctor to see if they have any. Even if they don’t, they may be able to help you locate some in your area.
You can also try contacting the formula companies directly to see if they have any samples, Gentile said.
Reach out to your social circle, online and offline.
Ask around to friends and family to see if they have the formula you need — or know where you can get it. Recently, local formula Facebook groups have been popping up, connecting parents and caregivers so they can help each other find the products they need.
“Pregnant parents often get free samples of formula sent to their house as a marketing campaign by formula companies,” Gentile said. “On a personal note: When I was a breastfeeding mom I kept my free formula samples as ‘emergency backup’ just in case my supply dropped. I would have been more than happy to share with a family in need!”
If you’re unable to find any infant formula, cow’s milk or toddler formula may be temporary options.
While it’s not recommended under normal circumstances, if your baby is older than 6 months, you might be able to temporarily give them whole cow’s milk, Trachtenberg said. But be sure to talk to your child’s doctor before going this route, as the general guideline is still to wait until the age of 12 months to introduce it.
“The concern is whole cow’s milk can cause iron deficiency anemia in large amounts at a young age,” Trachtenberg said. “So make sure baby is getting plenty of iron-rich foods in their diet — meats, eggs, greens fortified cereals — as well and possibly an iron supplement if needed, so discuss this with your pediatrician.”
According to Gentile, relying on whole milk or toddler formula is OK as a very short-term solution (two to three days) for infants nearing the 12-month mark.
“This should be done under the strict guidance of a pediatrician as these options do not provide the proper vitamins and minerals to be a long-term solution,” Gentile added.
Also, consider purchasing human breastmilk from a trusted breastmilk bank, Gentile suggested.
“This milk is thoroughly tested for safety,” she said. “Your pediatrician should be able to guide you to a local breastmilk bank.”
Never dilute formula.
Some parents may be tempted to dilute their baby’s formula by adding extra water to make what little they have left last longer. Don’t do this. It can be quite dangerous — even fatal.
“This can lead to too few calories and an inappropriate vitamin and mineral concentration, which can lead to malnourishment, poor growth, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, fussiness, and even seizures,” Gentile warned.
Always mix formula as directed by the manufacturer.
Never make your own formula at home.
You may have come across recipes for homemade formula online that seem like a good alternative to use in an emergency. But it’s not, Trachtenberg said.
Consuming homemade formula can be unsafe for babies — even deadly — and the recipes do not meet specific nutritional needs.
“Unfortunately deaths have been reported from use of some homemade formulas,” Trachtenberg noted.
Try not to stockpile.
To help manage the shortage, retailers like CVS, Costco and Walgreens have started putting limits on the number of formula purchases per transaction. You can do your part to help other families by not overbuying.
“I know this may be difficult, but the AAP recommends buying no more than two weeks’ supply instead of stockpiling to ease shortages,” Trachtenberg said.