What Parents Can And Shouldn't Do In The Wake Of America's Baby Formula Shortage

Mason Joseph Zimmer
Target shelves with large cans of toddler formula next to sign explaining infant formula shortage
Getty Images | Jim Watson

Following a large scale 2022 formula recall that includes Similac, America's parents are facing a serious and ongoing baby formula shortage. And while alternative brands such as Enfamil were not affected by the recall, the fact that this can't be said for the nation's largest formula producer is putting a crunch on existing supplies.

Since the adverse effects of doctored and homemade formulas are well-documented and there's always a risk in interrupting a baby's regular feeding, many Americans are struggling to navigate the most recent of many shortages that have gripped the world's supply chains since the emergence of the pandemic.

With this in mind, desperate parents are turning to a variety of alternative options wherever supplies are hard to come by and as always, some of the solutions that have spread across the internet are better than others.

However, since some of the lesser ones can have dangerous consequences for a baby's health, we're going to go over what should and shouldn't be done about this crisis.

Although the nation's baby formula shortage has become critical, there were supply problems even before there was any major recall.

mother feeding infant formula through bottle
Wikimedia Commons | Smmchapman

As The New York Times reported, supply chain issues in the wake of pandemic led to ingredient shortages earlier this year that saw some parents discover that their brand of choice was out of stock throughout the country.

But while select brands faced this crunch before, some of the largest brands became affected by an issue that began manifesting in February.

As a result, a recall affected all products from one of the four leading formula manufacturers after contaminants were discovered in an Abbott factory in Sturgis, Michigan.

petri dish with Enterobacter sakazakii bacteria inside
Wikimedia Commons | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Abbott engaged in this voluntary recall of various powdered formulas including Similac, Alimentum, and EleCare after that facility was found to be contaminated by a bacteria known as Cronobacter sakazakii and after reports linked at least one product to the more well-known Salmonella.

Although The New York Times reported that Cronobacter infections are rare with an estimated four cases per year, the bacteria is known to contaminate dry goods and infection can have severe and even deadly consequences for infants, especially newborns.

Since this concern has shrunk formula supplies, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that parents make use of breast milk whenever possible.

sparse Target shelves holding dwindling infant formula and toddler formula supplies
Getty Images | Jim Watson

Of course, that isn't always an option and switching from formula to breast milk is rarely something that can be done on a dime. So Good Morning America reported that all alternative formulas found in most stores are FDA-approved and that most parents can safely switch to another one, particularly if the product is iron-fortified.

That said, for children with allergies and ones using formula that can be described as extensively hydrolyzed or amino acid-based, the AAP recommends consulting a pediatrician before switching.

Some brands that weren't affected by the recall include Kirkland's Signature ProCare, Enfamil Infant Formula, and Target's Up and Up options.

Target shelves with large cans of toddler formula next to sign explaining infant formula shortage
Getty Images | Jim Watson

The New York Times also identified specific alternatives to popular brands like Similac Advance (Kirkland, Enfamil, Member's Mark Infant, store brand Advantage formulas like Target's Up and Up Advantage, and Earth Best Organic) and Similac Total Comfort (Gerber Good Start GentlePro or Up & Up Complete Comfort).

But for parents who are struggling to access any of these products, there is one option that isn't normally recommended but may have to do in a pinch.

For babies older than six months, pediatricians are making the reluctant recommendation to use cow's milk with some limitations.

tagged dairy cow standing in meadow among dandelions
Wikimedia Commons | Keith Weller/USDA

As the AAP's guidelines state, "This is not ideal and should not become routine but is a better option than diluting formula or making homemade formula."

The reason this isn't ideal is because cow's milk is low in iron and a baby with insufficient iron will experience reduced blood count, which reduces oxygen flow to their major organs, including the brain. This is why toddler formula is not an adequate substitute for baby formula.

So if parents with children above six months do use cow's milk, pediatrician Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson recommended supplementing the child's iron intake with "dark leafy green veggies pureed or soft, dark meats like dark chicken or turkey, red meat."

However, plant-based milk products such as almond milk should not be used due to their insufficient protein and calcium.

stop sign in Australia in front of tree branches
Wikimedia Commons | Bidgee

Doctors are also emphatic that parents should under no circumstances water down formulas or try to manufacture their own with store-bought ingredients.

That's because diluted or homemade formula will not necessarily meet a baby's nutritional needs and can have the same problem as almond milk.

It's also very easy for homemade formulas to be harmful in the other direction as nutrients found in manufactured formulas can be toxic to infants if administered at too high of concentrations.

Since that balance is a delicate one that most of us aren't equipped to judge, it's best to consult a pediatrician if you're struggling to find formula.

And for families in need of specialized formulas, Abbot has set up a web platform that may grant access to options that are confirmed to be safe.

h/t: The New York Times, Good Morning America