What to Do When You're Out of Baby Formula

By: Patty Rasmussen  | 

baby formula empty shelves
Shelves across the U.S. where baby formula should be are nearly empty, like this one at a Target store in Orlando. What are parents supposed to do? SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The infant formula shortage in the U.S. came to a head this spring as a result of ongoing supply chain disruptions — issues outside the infant formula production industry — combined with a recall of several major brands of powdered formula. All of this was further exacerbated because many parents stockpiled powdered formula during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Abbott Nutrition recalled several brands of its powdered formula and shut down its Sturgis, Michigan, production facility when federal officials investigating four babies with bacterial infections (two of whom died) consumed products made at the facility. Since Abbott is one of the companies producing most of the U.S. formula supply, the recall took much of the formula inventory. In some states, between 40 and 50 percent of infant formula products were pulled from shelves.

President Joe Biden announced this week that the federal government is working with manufacturers to increase production of formula and help families access existing stock. But hungry babies don't care about supply chains, inventory and price gouging; they just want to be fed. And their parents want to feed them. They also have questions.

Can I just add a little more water to make the formula last a little longer? Is it possible to make my own formula? If so, what's the recipe? Some moms have even attempted to start breastfeeding their babies again.

We checked in with Dr. Bob Shelley, associate dean of student affairs and director of admissions on the Savannah campus of Mercer University School of Medicine. Shelley is also a pediatrician by training who practiced in Savannah from 1986 until 2015. Like any good doctor, he is extremely sympathetic to the situation parents find themselves in and encourages them to seek the advice of their pediatrician or health care provider.

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Where to Look for Formula

"If parents speak to their pediatrician, they may be able to assist them in finding formula, get them samples or let them know where formula seems to be in stock, so I would encourage families to do that," Shelley says.

Shelley says for those parents who don't have a pediatrician, the local Women, Infants and Children (WIC) office may also be able to suggest places to look. But he says to put your smartphone and social media to work for you.

"The companies that make Similac and Enfamil have apparently developed apps that parents can download," Shelley adds. "[These apps] are supposed to be able to assist families in finding the formula. While there was a recall on Similac some time ago, the Similac that is in the stores now should be completely safe to use as long as it has not reached its expiration date. I am told there are Facebook groups for moms where people help each other find formula as well."

Also if you find formula, don't buy more than you need. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggests parents buy no more than a 10-day to two-week supply to help ease the shortage.

Shelley is adamant on one point: Stick to buying formula domestically.

"I would certainly not recommend purchasing formula from international markets" he says. "The FDA has stringent guidelines for formula, and you would be losing those protections."

mother feeding baby
Baby formula is just that, an exact formula, so the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) advises against parents making their own.
Oscar Wong/Getty Images

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Can I Make My Own Formula?

Formula is exactly what it's called, a complex recipe of essential ingredients and nutrients. If parents are thinking of adding extra water to formula, Shelley says, think again.

"We really do not recommend watering down formula," Shelley says. "The babies will not be getting enough nutrition."

Nutrition for babies is essential to proper growth and development, physical and mental. "We also don't recommend [parents] making their own formula, as there will likely be nutrient deficits," Shelley adds. "We would generally also advise against switching to cow's milk or plant-based milk. The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) also advises against parents and caregivers making their own baby formula because the recipes are not evaluated by the FDA and lack vital nutrients infants need to grow.

Shelley says whole cow's milk is an acceptable substitute for formula, but only for a brief and short period and only for babies who are older than six months old and who've already been on cow's milk-based formula.

But Shelley warns parents who go this route to be very cautious. "Families really need to be careful doing this and be certain their child is on plenty of foods containing iron, as babies drinking a large amount of cow's milk can become iron deficient," he says. "Again, we would only suggest doing this for a very short time. And do not use low-fat milk. Infants need the extra fat for brain development."

What about switching formulas, like from milk-based to soy-based or just to a different brand? The AAP says for most babies, it's fine to switch unless they take a specialized formula. If your baby drinks a name-brand milk-based formula, you can switch to store-brand milk-based formula, for instance, or from a milk-based to a soy-based (and vice versa). But if your baby is on a partially hydrolyzed sensitive formula, talk to your child's pediatrician before switching.

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Should You Try to Breastfeed Again?

If you want to try to restart breastfeeding, you can be successful, especially if it wasn't long since you stopped.

"A mother may want to call her lactation consultant if she had one," Shelley says "or the pediatrician's office should be able to get her in touch with one."

Here are a few strategies for relactation and induced lactation to stimulate milk production from La Leche League, International:

  • Hand express/pump at least eight to 12 times per day for 20 to 30 minutes, including at night.
  • If your baby will latch on, give them the breast before and after each feeding.
  • Put your baby to your breast instead of using pacifier. The sucking helps build your milk supply.

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