May 17, 2022, 1:48:13 PM CDT Jan 23, 2023, 4:03:43 PM CST

Advice for parents during the baby formula shortage

What to do – and not do – to make sure your baby is safely fed

Mom feeding baby a bottle Mom feeding baby a bottle

Many parents here and across the country are scrambling to find baby formula to feed their infants. Selection is scarce, and many store shelves are empty.

Formula is a vital part of nutrition for many babies, and naturally, parents are concerned. Read on for important information from the American Academy of Pediatrics and Rinarani Sanghavi, M.D., Pediatric Gastroenterologist at Children's Health℠ and Associate Professor at UT Southwestern, to help keep your baby safely fed.

What's causing the baby formula shortage?

In February 2022, Abbott Nutrition voluntarily recalled certain types of powdered infant formula after complaints of illness. Before that, the COVID‑19 pandemic led to supply chain issues and significant shortages of infant formulas in some stores around the country.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is working with baby formula manufacturers and others to increase the supply of baby formula in a timely manner. They just reached an agreement with Abbott Nutrition to reopen a facility to produce formula. These efforts should ease the strain of the formula shortage for parents.

How can I make sure my baby is safely fed during the baby formula shortage?

If you have any concerns about feeding your baby, always start by asking your pediatrician for guidance. They know your baby's health history and can provide the best advice. If your baby has a health condition, you can also consult their specialist.

"Parents are smart to ask questions. In the first year of life, proper nutrition is extremely important for the baby's growth and development," explains Dr. Sanghavi. "There's a lot of misinformation out there, and we want to help parents get the correct information to keep their babies healthy."

What if baby formula is out of stock in my local stores?

If you're struggling to find baby formula during the shortage, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends you:

  • Check smaller stores and drug stores. Sometimes large stores run out of supply sooner.
  • Ask your pediatrician's office if it's possible to get a sample can of formula or if they are aware of any local charities or organizations with baby formula.
  • Buy formula online until stores can stock more. Purchase only from well-recognized distributors and pharmacies. Do not go to sites where formula is sold individually or through auction.
  • Check social media groups dedicated to infant feeding. Group members may have ideas about stores or online shops recently restocked with formula. Of course, if the groups offer health advice, always consult your pediatrician first before trying it.

Is it OK to buy formula online from overseas?

No. Do not buy formula directly from other countries. In the United States, baby formula is highly regulated to ensure it has the correct nutrients. Risks of using imported formulas include:

  • Formula may not be stored at the correct temperatures to preserve nutritional value during the shipping process.
  • Labels may be written in foreign languages, making it difficult to follow mixing instructions. (Formula must be mixed correctly to avoid electrolyte imbalances, seizures and poor weight gain.)
  • Some European formulas are created for babies in certain age groups who require certain nutrients. If parents are not aware of this, their babies may not get the correct formula for their age group and may be deprived of essential nutrients.

The good news – the FDA is working to identify already permitted baby formula products from overseas and safely move them into the United States as soon as possible.

If I can't find my baby's specific brand of formula, is it OK to switch to another brand or use a store brand?

For most babies who are not on specialty formulas, it is OK to switch to any available formula, including store brands. However, do NOT switch brands or use store brands if your baby has special nutritional needs and uses a specific extensively hydrolyzed or amino acid-based formula such as EleCare. Instead, ask your pediatrician to recommend an alternative to your baby's specialty formula. You can also see a list of recommended formula substitutions here.

Can I give toddler formula to my baby if infant formula is not available?

The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend toddler formula for infants. Toddlers require different nutrients than infants. However, if your baby is close to a year old, toddler formula may be safe for a few days if you have no other options. Ask your pediatrician for guidance.

Is it OK to put more water in my baby's formula to make it last longer?

No, it is not safe to dilute your baby's formula. Watered-down formula is dangerous. It can cause nutritional imbalances and health problems for your little one. When mixing your baby's formula, always follow the instructions on the label or your pediatrician's guidance.

Is it safe to make my own baby formula at home?

No. Chances are, you've seen old recipes for homemade baby formula circulating on the internet. The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly advises you not to use them and says some infant deaths have been reported after using homemade formulas.

"Homemade formula is not safe because it deprives your baby of key nutrients needed to grow and stay healthy. It's critical for babies to have the right nutrients in the right amounts," says Dr. Sanghavi. "These homemade formula recipes created years ago can cause both short- and long-term harm for babies. We have much better scientific knowledge now."

For example, a homemade formula may contain too much salt or other nutrients that your baby's kidneys and liver cannot process correctly. Or, it may not contain the right ingredients to help your baby's bones grow in a healthy manner.

Is it safe to give my baby cow's milk instead of baby formula?

Do not switch entirely to cow's milk unless your baby is close to a year old.

"If your baby is close to 11 months, it's OK to switch to regular whole milk," says Dr. Sanghavi. "But I would not switch much earlier than that because cow's milk does not have all the nutrients that are necessary for a human baby to grow."

In urgent cases, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, cow's milk may be an option for a very brief period of time if your baby:

  • Is older than 6 months of age
  • Uses regular formula
  • Does not require a specialty formula for allergies or other special health needs

A word of caution, though. Cow's milk for infants at 6 months of age is not ideal and should not become routine. One of the most important concerns with giving babies cow's milk is making sure they get enough iron. If drinking cow's milk, babies will also need to eat solid foods that contain iron. Check with your pediatrician for guidance before using cow's milk, and ask whether your baby will need an iron supplement.

Is plant-based milk a safe option for feeding infants?

Milk alternatives – such as oat, soy, rice and almond milks – are not recommended for:

  • Babies under 1 year of age
  • Babies with certain medical conditions who require specialized formulas

If your baby is close to a year old, soy milk may be an option for a few days in an emergency, but always use the type that is fortified with protein and calcium. Switch back to regular baby formula as soon as it's available. Be aware that almond milk and other plant milks are often low in protein and minerals. Consult with your pediatrician before using any plant-based milk.

How can I help ease the impact of the baby formula shortage?

Naturally, if you find formula on the store shelf, your instinct is to stock up. To help ensure there is enough formula for all babies who need it, the American Academy of Pediatrics advises buying no more than a 10-day to 2-week supply.

"The formula shortage is real, but thankfully there are steps being taken to resolve this soon," says Dr. Sanghavi. "In the meantime, I encourage parents to look at smaller stores for available formula. Do not use recipes from the internet because they can be dangerous to your baby. Remember, your pediatrician is there for you, and you should check with them If you are unable to get formula or if your child is on a special formula."

Learn more

The primary care team at Children's Health is here to care for all aspects of your child's health, from well-child exams and treatment of common illnesses to treatment of chronic conditions. Learn more about our primary care services, or see more advice for keeping babies healthy.

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