Four Things to Know About the Infant Formula Shortage Right Now

Published on 
May 25, 2022


Tips from a clinical dietitian for keeping babies healthy when formula is in short supply.

By Matt Villano

It’s no secret the COVID pandemic has brought with it a spate of supply chain challenges. The latest product in crisis: infant and child formula.

The shortage has affected nearly all types of formulas, hitting those who require special formulas the hardest: children with milk allergies, developmental disabilities and special needs, among other conditions. These specialty formulas are often not sold in traditional box stores. They require special prescriptions and delivery from pharmacies.

Even during normal times, it can be difficult for families to track down these specialized formulas. In recent months the task has become downright Herculean. The shortage went from bad to worse after a voluntary recall of a major manufacturing brand this year. The situation began last year due to factory closures and labor shortages. All of these factors contributed to the substantial rising price of formula in the last 12 months.

Nicole Meadow, MPN, RD, Clinical Dietitian in the Heart Institute at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, agrees the situation is serious.

“It’s a really big deal, especially for families with infants and babies who need some of these special formulas to survive,” she says, noting all infants need human milk or formula solely through their first six months of life and up to at least the first full year of life.  Some infants may require the specialty formulas beyond that. “These infants can’t switch formulas as easily as other kids. It’s not like you can substitute in just anything.” Collaboration with you medical providers is vital.

So what can families do? Meadow shares four pieces of advice.

1. Stay calm.

According to Meadow, while the formula shortage is dire, it’s important not to blow it out of proportion or overreact.

Yes, she said, many pharmacies and big-box stores across the country have sold out of brand name formula or are running low on supply. At the same time, she noted that many parents have had success finding store-brand formula at the same locations or brand-name formula at grocery stores. Store-brand formula for healthy, full-term infants is equivalent to the name brand.

“Some people are still finding it,” she said. “They’re just working harder than they need to be.”

2. Don’t improvise or DIY.

They call it “formula” for a reason—each formula is specially regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration because safety for infants is a top priority.

Every formula is designed to be administered in highly specific doses, with set amounts of water mixed in. For this reason, it’s critically important to follow recommended instructions for portioning and dosing.

“If infant formula is not prepared correctly, or if babies aren’t getting enough formula, they may not get proper amounts of calories and protein, and they can develop micronutrient deficiencies,” she says. “Depriving them of those things is not a solution to this problem. Since this population is so fragile, that can be very dangerous.”  Some infants have already been hospitalized because of formula not being prepared correctly.

She added that most formulas were originally designed and manufactured in a laboratory, and in such a way that people cannot replicate them at home. These formulas and their ingredients are also made in a sterile environment. This means parents should not trust social media posts boasting do-it-yourself recipes for replacements.

“If you’re finding a ‘formula recipe’ online, it isn’t something that’s been approved by the FDA and it almost certainly isn’t something you should be trying to give to your child,” Meadow says. “Especially if your child has special needs, formula isn’t the kind of thing you can just make at home.”

The FDA specifically warns against using homemade infant formulas, noting that “the potential problems associated with errors in selecting and combining the ingredients for the formula are very serious and range from severe nutritional imbalances to unsafe products that can harm infants.”

Finally, Meadow says parents always should give babies the proper formula for their age groups. For example, don’t feed high-calorie formula meant for a toddler to your infant.

3. Purchase from reputable sources.

When purchasing formula, parents should look for sealed containers—preferably with factory wrappers. Sealed packaging means that the product will be as advertised, and that any discrepancies are the responsibility of the manufacturer.

Meadow says that during this shortage, several unproven and unknown sellers have been trying to sell formula containers that have been opened previously, or formula powder that is not in its original packaging. These products should be avoided at all costs.

“You don’t want to take any chances with this,” says Meadow.

4. Contact health care providers.

If parents can’t find specialty formula on their own, Meadow suggests parents get in touch with their health care providers and seek alternative formulas.

Another strategy Meadow recommends: Checking in with the local Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, which aims to safeguard the health of low-income women, infants and children up to age 5 who are at nutrition risk.

“Even now, even with the shortage, there are still some fallbacks,” she said.

Outside help may be on the horizon, too. The White House and FDA are working to increase supply, including importation of specialty infant formula from abroad.

Learn more about clinical nutrition and lactation services at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

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