Being the parent of a young child is hard enough, even before factoring in the additional challenges of living through a global pandemic. And so far this year, that has included a shortage of baby formula.
First there were issues with the supply chain and the availability of ingredients. Then in February, one of the country’s leading manufacturers issued a massive recall of their products after several babies were hospitalized with bacterial infections linked to their formulas. Throw in an historic inflation rateand baby formula — already a pricey item — is suddenly out of reach for many families.
But despite all that, there are still options for feeding your baby that do not involve breastmilk (which is not an option for everyone). Here are a few strategies to get you through.
Go with a generic formula
If you’ve been feeding your baby with a name-brand formula, you’ve probably noticed that they’re the first to go. But in reality, there is little-to-no difference between generic or store-brand formulas and the ones with the familiar names. In fact, a 2017 article published in the journal Pediatrics reports that they’re “nearly identical.”
Not only that, but no matter where you buy a grocery store- or pharmacy-brand formula—Costco, Target, Walgreens, CVS, Amazon, Kroger, etc. — it’s all made by the same manufacturer: Perrigro. Plus, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) holds all baby formulas — including generic brands — to the same quality and safety standardsincluding requirements for the products’ nutrients, ingredients, and manufacturing processes.
Match proteins and carbs in a new formula
To make your baby’s transition to a new formula as simple as possible, pick one that has the same proteins and carbohydrates as your previous formula, Bridget Young, PhDa professor of pediatrics at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, recently told Wirecutter.
Matching proteins — like switching from one formula containing nonfat milk to another — should be your top priority, she says, followed by carbohydrates, including lactose, maltodextrin, or corn-syrup solids.
Supplement your supply with samples
This is not a long-term solution, but if you’re really stuck, free samples of baby formula can help. For instance, if happen to have an appointment with your pediatrician coming up, you can let them know about your challenges with the formula shortage, and ask them if they have recommendations. Ideally, at this point, they’ll offer up some samples, but if they do not, you can always ask.
You can also check the websites of baby formula companies and order any available free samples. Again, if the samples aren’t offered, you can call customer service to request some. If you’re going this route, it’s best to check in with your doctor about it first (regardless of whether they give you samples), especially if your child has any special formula needs.
Switch to whole milk once they’re 12 months old
After your baby’s first birthday, they no longer require the special nutrients provided in baby formula, and in most situations, can transition to drinking whole milk instead, according to Lauren Beene, MDa pediatrician at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children in Cleveland.
How much milk should they drink? Beene says that the ideal amount of whole milk for toddlers is 16 to 24 ounces of per day — any more than that can lead to iron deficiency.
Switch to another type of milk once they’re 12-months old
There are other milk options (also for children who are at least 12 months old) that come from things other than cows, Beene points out. Soy and pea milk are her top picks, as they’re the most nutritionally similar to cow’s milk, and the only plant-based milks that can be used in place of formula (from a nutritional standpoint).
“Other plant-based milks, such as almond milk, cashew milk, and oat milk, can be good sources of calcium and vitamin D, ” Beene says. “I always recommend checking the labels to be certain, but [they] are typically not the best source of protein, fat, and calories. ” Because of this, they can be used as supplemental beverages, but not alternatives to cow’s milk or formula.
What to avoid during the formula shortage
It’s also important to keep in mind that some of the strategies we might turn to during shortages of other products may not be a safe options when it comes to feeding a baby. Here are a few things to avoid:
There are plenty of recipes for DIY baby formula out there, but according to the FDA, they should all be avoided. That’s because unlike manufactured formulas, homemade versions may not contain the necessary nutrients in the right quantities — potentially leading to nutritional imbalances, the agency explained in a 2021 statement.
The So FDA warns of potential contamination of homemade formula, which can result in foodborne illnesses, which, like nutritional imbalances, can be life-threatening.
When you’re running low on liquid hand soap, you might add some water to the container to make it a last a bit longer. This strategy does not work with baby formula. Adding extra water to formula in order to make the container last longer is a bad idea — especially for younger babies — because it means they’re not getting the nutrients they need.
“In addition, babies’ kidneys are immature and are not capable of processing the extra water in diluted formula,” says Beene. “If a baby consumes diluted formula, they may end up having very low sodium levels in their blood, which can lead to seizures and even death.”
Baby formulas imported from Europe or other parts of the world aren’t held to the same FDA standards as those produced in the United States. As Lifehacker’s Meghan Moravcik Walbert points out in this 2019 articlethese include requirements for storage, nutrition, recalls, and labeling.
Some areas have milk banks, where people who produce extra milk while breastfeeding can donate it for others to use. But Beene does not recommend using milk banks as a way of obtaining breastmilk to replace formula during the shortage.
“The best use of this donated breastmilk is in the neonatal ICU setting,” she explains, noting that using banked milk in place of formula, “Would potentially impact supply for neonatal ICUs.”
Shortage or not, it’s best not to turn to places like Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist to purchase breastmilk or formula, as you can never be entirely sure what you’re getting, and whether it’s safe.
Giving toddler formula to babies
If your grocery store is out of your usual baby formula but still has toddler formula in stock, you can not simply swap one for the other if your baby is less than a year old. Although there’s no rigid timeline for weaning a baby off of formulait typically happens around their first birthday. “Toddler formula, ”which is marketed towards children older than one year, is not really necessary for most kids.
But more importantly, the FDA does not have the same standards for the nutritional content and manufacturing of toddler formula as it does for infant formula — including regulations for pathogen testing, Wirecutter reports. But if you truly have no other options, Steven A. Abrams, MD, from the American Academy of Pediatrics says that it’s safe to give toddler formula to babies older than six months for a few days.
And when in doubt, ask your pediatrician for guidance. Given that they’re familiar with your baby’s medical history and any special requirements they might have, they’re best equipped to answer your questions and make recommendations for getting through the baby formula shortage.