Baby Formula Shortage: Advice from a Pediatrician and Tips for Concerned Parents

Sunday, May 15, 2022

A formula shortage has many parents worried.

In mid-February, infant formula manufacturer Abbot Nutrition voluntarily recalled select batches of Similac, Alimentum and EleCare powdered formulas, linked to multiple serious Cronobacter sakazakii infections in infants and at least two infant deaths. As of early April, about 30% of popular baby formula brands were out of stock in retail stores across the U.S. as of early April.
Understandably, the formula shortage has many parents worried. Lauren Beene, MD, a pediatrician at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital, offers some practical guidance to concerned parents who have questions about switching and supplementing their baby's formula.
How to Switch to a New Infant Formula
Dr. Beene advises there is no one right way to switch your baby to a new formula.
“I recommend doing what you feel comfortable with," she says. “It's okay to just switch formulas — you don't have to gradually transition. Babies who do well on a standard cow's milk-based formula will usually do well on any brand of that formula type. If you'd prefer to start by mixing half and half at first, that is okay, but may not be necessary."
As far as selecting a specific baby formula, Dr. Beene advises parents not to overthink things, as there is little difference between standard formula brands and generic/store brand formulas. In fact, she often recommends parents try generic/store brand formulas, because they are equivalent to name brand formulas in terms of nutritional content and quality.
“Go with what is affordable and available," Dr. Beene urges. “If you're looking to try out a new formula, and you have a friend with formula to spare (assuming it's not expired and wasn't recalled), that would be a great place to start. You can also ask your pediatrician if they have any samples for you to try."
What Infant Formulas Should You Avoid?
Dr. Beene warns against using formulas produced internationally (such as European formulas), as they may not have been stored properly during transit to the U.S. Improper storage can result in contamination or spoilage.
Is Organic Formula Better Than Non-Organic Formula?
Organic formulas are not necessarily better than non-organic formulas. Furthermore, sometimes organic formulas can be harder to digest (in particular whole milk recipes) and, as such, might actually not be as good for your baby as non-organic alternatives.
When Can You Switch Your Baby to Whole Milk?
You can begin transitioning your baby to whole milk when he or she reaches 12 months of age. After 12 months, babies no longer require the extra nutrients included in baby formulas. 
Whole milk is a good source of calcium and vitamin D, which babies need for bone development. The ideal amount of whole milk for toddlers to drink is 16 to 24 ounces of per day. Any amount in excess of that can lead to iron deficiency.
What Other Types of Milk Can Your Baby Have?
Quite a few types of milk other than cow's milk are available to feed your 12-month-and-up baby, including:
  • soy milk
  • pea milk
  • almond milk
  • cashew milk
  • oat milk
Whole cow's milk is a great source of calcium, vitamin D, protein and fat. Of the other types listed above, soy and pea milk are the best alternatives to whole cow's milk, as they are the most similar in terms of nutritional content.
“Other plant-based milks, such as almond milk, cashew milk and oat milk," says Dr. Beene, “can be good sources of calcium and vitamin D — I always recommend checking the labels to be certain — but are typically not the best source of protein, fat and calories." 
As such, those other plant-based milks are generally not considered good milk substitutes for babies. However, use of those milks as supplemental beverages for your baby is acceptable.
Can You Dilute Infant Formula to Make it Last Longer?
No. Diluting infant formula by adding extra water to make the container last longer is very dangerous, especially for younger infants. For one, a baby drinking diluted formula won't obtain the correct amount of carbohydrates, protein, vitamins and minerals he or she needs for healthy growth.
“In addition, babies' kidneys are immature and are not capable of processing the extra water in diluted formula," says Dr. 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."
Are Milk Banks an Option for Mothers Having Problems Getting Their Formula?
Milk banks store and provide breastmilk that has been donated by women who produce extra. 
“The best use of this donated breastmilk is in the neonatal ICU setting," says Dr. Beene. “Breastmilk is the best thing for the developing digestive systems of premature babies. As such, I would not recommend that other mothers seek out breastmilk from milk banks, as this would potentially impact supply for neonatal ICUs."
What About Formula for Babies With Specific Nutritional Requirements?
On a positive note, parents of babies without specific nutritional requirements have a good deal of options when it comes to infant formula should they be required to change formulas as a result of the current shortage or any shortage in the future. Where the current or any future formula shortage could be more problematic is for babies who require specialty formula. 
“Infants with more specific nutritional requirements sometimes require specialty formulas," says Dr. Beene. “For example, babies with renal insufficiency or certain metabolic disorders require formulas made to address those conditions. These infants could suffer serious health consequences if their formulas were to become unavailable."

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