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The baby formula shortage is getting worse—here's what to do

Whatever you do, don't make your own

An image of powdered baby formula sitting on a counter near an empty baby bottle. Credit: Getty Images / FotoDuets

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As if having a newborn during a pandemic isn’t hard enough ongoing formula shortages have thrust new parents into a state of panic.

The reason for the baby formula shortage is unclear. Chains like Walmart and CVS blame supply issues, while manufacturers like Gerber, Enfamil, and Similac say retailers aren’t getting their products into stores once it is delivered.

Not surprisingly, bare shelves at stores across the U.S. are causing parents of infants to worry. If you find yourself looking at low levels of baby formula at home, we are here to help. We spoke with experts to help get you through this crisis to find the best possible means to keep your baby healthy and fed.

1. Shop beyond the grocery store

Mother holds and comforts her infant baby
Credit: Getty Images / damircudic

Don't panic. There are lots of ways to get your baby what they need.

A bare grocery store shelf may cause a sense of panic, but know that your local grocery isn’t the only place to buy or find infant formula. You may be surprised to find a better supply at drug stores, convenience store chains, local pharmacies and baby specialty stores in your area.

Manufacturer websites often have information on where to find stock, so you can usually even check before you make the drive.

If all else fails, you can also order infant formula directly from the manufacturer. Most manufacturers seem to have full stock and can even offer discounts on subscription orders, to ensure you never run out.

2. Ask your pediatrician for assistance

A Caucasian female infant is asleep in the arms of a pediatrician. The baby is swaddled in a blanket and is wearing a warm cap.
Credit: Getty Images / Steve Debenport

Your pediatrician can run triage and find you a host of solutions to help you get the baby formula you need.

According to Adam Barsella, a pediatrician at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield, Illinois, your own pediatrician will likely have a host of solutions for you, should you be unable to find your preferred brand of baby formula.

“Your pediatrician should be able to triage and troubleshoot for you,” he says.

If your baby requires a specialized formula, your pediatrician can call in for medical requests to get them exactly what they need.

Barsella also says that most pediatricians' offices can help in the event of an emergency.

“Most have a [variety of samples] and a stock of products for children of complex needs. They don’t have enough supply to feed all of their patients, but, if you are waiting on a formula order, your pediatrician can help you make it through,” says Barsella.

3. Try a new formula brand

As new moms know, there is a lot of brand loyalty when it comes to baby formula. Changing baby formulas can be scary and can cause varying issues if it's done too rapidly.

It's important to consult your pediatrician about how to make the transition easier on your baby's delicate digestive system, but that doesn't mean that transitioning to another brand isn't an option to explore. Talk with your baby's pediatrician about options and alternatives, which they can guide you through.

"Most people think they have to stick with the formula they are currently using, but every brand likely has a version you can use, and it's very easy to switch [with guidance]. Even if your baby has a sensitivity there is plenty of room to move up or down on the spectrum of formula," says Barsella.

4. Start your baby on solid foods

Mother feeding her little baby boy
Credit: Getty Images / Pekic

If your baby is six months or older, consider solids to supplement their nutrition.

You should continue feeding with formula until your baby turns 1 year old, but if your child is over six months you can start to supplement nutrition with some solids.

The CDC recommends that you introduce one solid at a time to monitor for food intolerance and allergies. A good place to start is with fortified cereal, mashed bananas or avocado, or even well-cooked and puréed meat, poultry and beans.

5. Give breastmilk a try

breast milk storage bags for new baby in refrigerator
Credit: Getty Images / MonthiraYodtiwong

You can consult breastmilk banks as a bridge option

While we are aware that many families use formula because they either need to supplement, can't breastfeed or prefer not to, your own breast milk isn't the only option for your baby. There are breast milk banks that can provide safe, pasteurized breast milk for your baby.

Informal breast milk sharing—even between friends and community members—is not recommended for health and safety reasons, so it's best to consult a regulated breast milk bank.

To find a milk bank, you can contact your nearest Human Milk Banking Association of America location. If they don’t have a milk bank near you they can help you find a licensed location to access breast milk that has been thoroughly vetted for safety.

Never make your own formula

There has been an uptick in online searches for how to make baby formula, but all experts agree, this is one thing you should never feed your baby.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Food and Drug Administration both caution parents against making their own baby formula. Infants have very specific nutritional needs, which require a very specific balance of hydration and nutritional density.

Commercially manufactured infant formulas are carefully regulated to ensure that they deliver a specific balance of vitamins, minerals, protein, fats and carbohydrates, mimicking what is found in breast milk.

The FDA regulates commercial formula for safety, both in the ingredients used and in the manufacturing process. There's no way to guarantee the purity and safety of store-bought ingredients and the multi-step process that is often taken to make homemade formula opens the final product up to bacterial contamination.

"Unless you're a chemist, this isn't something you should do at home," says Barsella. "I understand it's stressful out there, but it's very difficult to balance out all of the calories and nutrients that a child under 1 year old will need without causing problems."

Do not dilute baby formula

Young mother hands pouring powder of milk formula and mixing with water in plastic bottle. Opened container on light blue table background. Baby feeding. Closeup. Point of view shot. Top down view.
Credit: Getty Images / FotoDuets

Never resort to diluting your baby formula.

If you're running low on supply, you may be tempted to dilute the formula you have on hand. Barsella cautions caregivers to never dilute breast milk.

Extra water can be dangerous to babies. Diluting formula or breastmilk can interfere with an infant's ability to absorb nutrients. This can cause seizures, brain damage and—in extreme cases—death.

"This is one of the reasons parents shouldn’t make their own formula, but it extends to diluting what they have," says Barsella, adding that an imbalance of water and nutrients can cause serious neurological issues down the road.

"A more diluted formula might seem like a good idea as a short-term solution, but it can result in lifelong neurological issues for the baby. It's better to find another resource for feeding your baby the nutrients they require," says Barsella.

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