As the infant formula shortage persists across the U.S., many parents are struggling to find adequate supplies to feed their infants and children with special dietary needs.
We talked to two Rush specialists about what parents need to know as they navigate the shortage.
Gina Lowell, MD, is a pediatrician, and Darlene Hepburn, RN, is a nurse with the Rush Family Connects Chicago team. Rush Family Connects is a partnership with the Chicago Department of Public Health and Family Connects International, which provides in-home support, guidance and connections to resources from registered nurses at no cost to any Chicago resident family who has a child at Rush University Medical Center in the crucial few weeks after childbirth.
How long is the formula shortage expected to last?
At least several more weeks. The Food and Drug Administration announced that the factory in Sturgis, Michigan, affected by the recall could reopen within one week, and formula from the plant could be on shelves within six to eight weeks.
The Biden Administration also announced two steps to speed up getting more formula to consumers, including invoking the Defense Production Act, which directs formula ingredient suppliers to prioritize deliveries to infant formula plants, and Operation Fly Formula, which works with commercial airlines to fly imported formula meeting U.S. health and safety standards. On May 23, the first shipment of 78,000 pounds of formula from Europe arrived in the United States.
Who can I call to get help finding formula?
The Illinois Department of Human Services has trained caseworkers to assist families with formula questions.
You can contact the IDHS Help Line at 1-800-843-6154. The Help Line is designed for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and WIC customers primarily but is open to all residents of Illinois.
In addition, several formula makers have started urgent request lines for families using formula to find suitable alternatives:
- Gerber’s MyGerber Baby can link you to a certified nutrition or lactation consultant by phone, text, Facebook Messenger, web chat or video call, who can help you identify a similar formula to the one your child uses that may be more readily available
- Abbott has an urgent product request line for children with particular medical needs. Your OB-GYN or pediatrician will need to submit the urgent product request
- Reckitt, the company that makes Enfamil, has a customer service line for parents who are having difficulty finding formula: 1-800-BABY-123 (222-9123)
Can I make my own formula?
You may have seen recipes for homemade formula on TikTok or Instagram. But Lowell stresses that you absolutely should not attempt to make your own formula.
“Not making your own is probably at the top of the list,” she said. Homemade formula recipes found online will not have the right balance of nutritional needs, and carry a risk of bacterial infection. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently reported several babies have been hospitalized due to inappropriate substitutions for formula.
Can I dilute formula or use less per bottle?
Unfortunately, diluting formula can cause an imbalance of electrolytes and nutrition, Lowell says. Formula should be mixed according to the directions on the package to make sure your child receives adequate hydration and nutrition.
Is it safe to get formula from third-party sellers or donors?
Some parents are turning to third-party sellers on Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist or other sites to try to purchase formula, or finding formula from mutual aid or Buy Nothing groups. The Federal Trade Commission and Better Business Bureau offer some recommendations for safety precautions if you’re going this route:
- Some of these sites include sellers who are hoarding formula and reselling it at an enormous markup. There are usually other options available; don’t allow yourself to be price-gouged.
- Be aware of potential scam artists. Don’t pay for formula in advance, but pay when you receive the formula, or use a credit card, which offers the best protection against fraudulent charges.
- Meet in a public place like a library, coffee shop or police station to receive your formula if at all possible.
- Check the formula before accepting it, checking the box for tampering or damage, and check the expiration date.
- If you do spot a scam, you can report it to the FTC or the BBB.
If I’ve stopped breastfeeding, can I start again?
Possibly. Hepburn said it is possible to begin breastfeeding again and recommended a pumping regimen of twice a day for those who would like to begin to rebuild milk supply — but cautioned it would take time to see any results.
“Consistency is key. So, if you pump at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m., over time eventually your body will say, OK, these are the times I need to start making milk,” she said. “And then once you see milk in the bottle, you can try feeding the baby at those times. And that may or may not work.”
Hepburn went on to say that breastfeeding was not going to be the solution for the formula shortage for a lot of families.
“This is a very stressful situation … and there are many real situations where because of the environment or the time constraints, or other factors, [breastfeeding] is just not going to be possible.”
Can I get human donor milk?
You may be able to receive some human donor milk for your child. The Mothers’ Milk Bank of the Western Great Lakes uses a priority system, focused first on babies with particular medical needs, then on babies who need a short-term emergency supply during the formula shortage.
Can I switch to cow’s milk earlier, or start building my baby’s nutritional needs through solid foods?
It depends on your baby’s age and specific needs, Lowell says.
“It is really tough to say, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that,’” she said. “For your kids who are older than six months and are eating a lot of solid foods, they are generally weaning as it is, and you can really work toward a whole diet that can meet their nutritional needs, even as you may be giving them a little less formula during this time.”
Babies can begin eating solid food between four and six months of age. If your baby has started solids, or you believe they may be ready to start solids, speak with their pediatrician about how to best work in solid foods as part of their nutritional needs.
What if I have more questions?
If you have questions about formula needs or any infant nutritional needs, the Family Connects team recommends speaking to your child’s pediatrician.
If you’ve recently had a child at Rush University Medical Center and are a Chicago resident, you may be eligible for a Family Connects visit. For more information about Family Connects, or to reach a Family Connects nurse, you can call (312) 942-3424 or email email@example.com.