With store shelves all but empty and baby formula becoming harder and harder to find, panic is rising among parents across the country.
Ashley Crabtree, a 30-year-old mother of twins, says formula is nowhere to be found in stores in Youngsville, North Carolina. Her 14-month-old twins were born prematurely, and daughter Allie can only have a certain brand because of a milk protein intolerance.
“We finally found a brand that works and have been getting it through our insurance, but now I can’t find it anywhere,” Crabtree says. “I never do this, but after calling around to several places with no luck, I posted on social media asking my community for help.”
She was surprised to receive a flood of messages from moms in the same position.
“No parent should have to go through this,” Crabtree says.
Families such as Crabtree’s who need specialty formulas are having an especially difficult time finding what they need, says UNC Health pediatrician Katherine Jordan, MD. Even families who use standard formulas are struggling. For those who are lucky enough to find formula, grocery stores are limiting how much they can buy.
We asked Dr. Jordan and UNC Health pediatric dietitian Lisa Richardson to answer some questions about the shortage and share advice for parents.
Why is the formula shortage happening?
As of early May, more than 40 percent of formula across the country was out of stock. Many people point to recent supply chain pressures and the recall of several specialty formulas from Abbott Nutrition over concerns of contamination as primary contributors, but Richardson says there are other factors at play.
“This problem started back in 2020,” she says. “We know that people stocked up on formula during the pandemic, so there was a long time when people weren’t buying as much. That caused formula manufacturers to produce less, and then they weren’t able to keep up with the surge when people started buying again.”
Formula manufacturing, especially for powdered formula, is a complicated process, and it’s hard for companies to change course quickly, Richardson says.
What should parents do if they can’t find their child’s formula in stores?
When parents find a formula brand that works well for their child, usually they’ll try to stick with it—but now is not the time to be picky.
“If your child doesn’t have a medical condition and drinks standard formula, it is safe to switch brands and use store brands and generic versions,” Dr. Jordan says.
A new formula may taste different, but mixing your child’s usual formula together with the new brand could help, Richardson says.
Your baby may have gas or an upset stomach while adjusting to prebiotic and fiber differences between brands, but those symptoms should resolve within a few days, Dr. Jordan says.
“Nutritionally, the generic formula brands are awesome, and it is safe to switch between them,” Richardson says. “If you think about it in terms of breast milk, babies who are breastfed get a little different mix every day, depending on what mom ate. So, it’s perfectly fine for formula-fed babies to have that experience, too.”
If your child experiences vomiting, diarrhea or bloody poop or refuses to feed after switching formulas, contact your pediatrician right away.
If your child has a milk protein intolerance or another medical condition that requires special formula, Dr. Jordan recommends contacting your pediatrician or pediatric dietitian if you can’t find the formula you need.
“We will work with you to find a formula that will be safe for your baby,” Dr. Jordan says.
Can you make your own formula?
If you peruse social media right now, you’ll probably find a few recipes for homemade formula that parents say they used “back in the day.”
Richardson says using homemade formula is not recommended—and can even be dangerous.
Homemade formulas can lack many important nutrients, including calcium, vitamin D, potassium, folate and sodium. Without the right blend of vitamins and minerals, children could become sick and even hospitalized.
Also, do not dilute your child’s formula to make it last longer, Dr. Jordan says. This makes it difficult for children to get all the nutrients they need.
Is it safe to order formula from Europe?
European formulas are not legal in the United States because they are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Although there are third-party websites that will deliver to the United States, pediatricians do not recommend it.
“European formulas are safe in their intended market, but they’re not recommended in the U.S. because of the importation process,” Richardson says. “Powdered formula is extremely susceptible to bacteria, and if you have a third-party seller who doesn’t know the proper way to store and ship it, you could be exposing your child to bacteria.”
Can you switch to goat’s or cow’s milk?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises against consistently using cow’s milk as your child’s primary beverage until they are 12 months old, as it could cause intestinal bleeding.
Goat’s milk is low in folate and also should be avoided until your child turns 1, Dr. Jordan says.
However, if your child is 6 months or older, you can begin serving more nutrient-dense solid foods along with formula or breast milk.
“As babies get closer to 12 months, they’ll take in more of their calories by solid foods,” Dr. Jordan says. She recommends high-calorie solids such as avocado, eggs and pureed meats.
Talk to your pediatrician if you are concerned that your child isn’t getting enough calories.
Where else can parents go for help?
WIC, a federal program that provides healthcare support to women, infants and children, helps families find and pay for formula. You may be surprised to find that you qualify for it.
“Many families incorrectly assume that they don’t qualify for WIC. But the program’s income eligibility is well above the poverty line, and many working families qualify,” Richardson says.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has an online prescreening tool to check if you’re eligible.
And now with the power of social media, moms are banding together to help one another.
“Through my connections with other moms outside of where I live, I was able to acquire enough formula to get us through the next couple of months,” Crabtree says.
Abbott Nutrition says it could have its shuttered facility back up and running in two weeks, pending FDA approval.
“We don’t know exactly when, but the supply issues should get better soon,” Dr. Jordan says.
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