Recalls, supply-chain issues and labor shortages have many parents and caregivers struggling to find baby formula. The low levels have led some retailers to put a limit on purchases and keep inventory behind the counter.
The shortage is particularly acute for shoppers in Washington and the Seattle area, according to retail software company Datasembly, which said about 31% of formula products were out of stock across the country as of April. The week of April 3, that rate was higher in Washington, at 40%, and it was even higher for Seattle and 11 other major metro areas.
Confronted with empty shelves, people may panic and seek out alternative methods, including recipes for homemade formula and products bought online, said Eliza Lagerquist, a neonatal dietitian with the University of Washington Medical Center.
But Lagerquist and other experts caution parents and caregivers to be careful, seek community resources and follow advice from their pediatricians.
“Nutrition is a core building block of growth and development, and we as your pediatricians are happy to help you navigate this challenging time,” said Dr. Dale Lee, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Seattle Children’s hospital. “It is important that families realize that they are not in this difficult time alone.”
Here’s what to know if you can’t find formula at stores.
Contact your pediatrician or hospital
Lee encourages families to contact their pediatricians for advice on switching brands or seeking substitutions if they can’t find their preferred brand. Guidance is especially important, he said, if a child is on a more specialized formula, as finding substitutions may be more complicated.
In particular, Lee said, formulas with broken-down proteins, or that are amino-acid based, may be used in some situations and need to be carefully substituted.
Many local food banks have infant formulas, he said, and your pediatrician’s office or dietitian may have “unique resources” as well.
Don’t buy unregulated imported formula
The Biden administration’s plans to increase baby formula imports are not expected to have an immediate effect on tight supplies. Administration officials say getting imports into the U.S. supply chain will take several weeks. Because formula must be shipped in a way that maintains temperature and prioritizes other safety issues, FDA oversight is critical.
Formula alternatives that aren’t safe for infants
Infant formula is highly regulated and specially formulated to be a safe substitute for breast milk with proper ratios of protein, fat and carbohydrates, said Lagerquist.
Alternatives to avoid:
- Toddler formula: Formulated to meet the needs of children over a year old, toddler formula doesn’t meet the needs of infants. However, if no other options are available, babies who are near 1 year old can safely consume toddler formula for a few days, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
- Premature formula: If nothing else is available, full-term babies for a few weeks can safely consume formula made for babies born prematurely, the Academy said.
- Homemade formula: The “endless” formula recipes posted online are unregulated and pose too many potential risks for infants, according to Lagerquist. “We can’t just mix our own things together in the kitchen,” she said.
- Cow’s milk: It isn’t easily digested by babies until age 1. Milk doesn’t contain enough iron, which is critical for babies’ growth and development at the infant stage. Cow’s milk may also put your child at risk for intestinal bleeding before they turn 1, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, whole cow’s milk can be safe for children over 6 months for a brief period of time if no other options are available. It is not ideal and should not become routine. However, it is a better option than diluting formula or making homemade formula. The most important concern with giving an infant over 6 months of age cow’s milk if you can’t find baby formula is making sure they get enough iron to prevent anemia. Be sure to include plenty of iron-containing solid foods in their diet while you are using whole cow’s milk. You can also talk with your pediatrician about giving your baby an iron supplement until you can find formula again.
- Plant-based milk: With low caloric density and not formulated to be “nutritionally complete,” nut milk can result in nutritional deficiencies, said Lee. Soy milk may be an option for babies who are close to 1 year of age for a few days in an emergency, the American Academy of Pediatrics said. Always buy the kind that is fortified with protein and calcium. Make sure to change back to formula as soon as possible.
- Diluting formula: Trying to dilute formula to make it last longer can be harmful because it reduces the nutrients a baby gets and can lead to malnutrition and poor weight gain, Lagerquist said.
Order directly from manufacturer
You can also check the manufactures’ website for a store locator, then call ahead to make sure the product is in stock.
Lagerquist recommends parents and caregivers check the Washington State Department of Health Women, Infant and Children website — st.news/WICInfantFormula — for suggested formula alternatives if their local store is out of their preferred brand. The site also features a locator tool to identify if the item is in stock.
Check food banks, organizations and agencies
DOH’s WIC nutrition program can help pregnant women, new and breastfeeding moms, and children under 5 with food and other resources. Eligibility depends on household size and income.
Also eligible are caregivers for children under 5; foster children under 5; and pregnant teens. Those on Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or Basic Food may be also eligible for WIC.
There are over 200 WIC clinics statewide. To find a WIC clinic, call the Help Me Grow WA Hotline 800-322-2588, or text “WIC” to 96859.
Seattle-area food banks and organizations shared by WIC through ParentHelp123’s ResourceFinder include:
- West Seattle Food Bank: The Baby & Child Corner, 2419 S.W. Morgan St., Seattle, 206-932-9023
- White Center Food Bank: 10829 Eighth Ave. S.W., Seattle, 206-762-2848
- Atlantic Street Family Resource Center: 5150 S. Cloverdale Place, Seattle, 206-723-1301
- Baby Basics of Bellevue: First Presbyterian Church of Bellevue, 1717 Bellevue Way N.E., Bellevue, 425-454-3084, Ext 3205
- Children’s Home Society (North King County): 2611 N.E. 125th St. #145, Seattle, 206-695-3200
- North Helpline: 12736 33rd Ave. N.E. #100, Seattle
- Hopelink (Bellevue): 14812 Main St. Bellevue, 425-943-7555
- Salvation Army (Eastside): 911 164th Ave. N.E., Bellevue, 425-452-7300
- Next Step Pregnancy Services: 19526 64th Ave., Lynnwood, 425-329-4569
Call ahead to check availability. For a complete list and more resources, visit: resources.parenthelp123.org.
Consider breast milk
If breastfeeding isn’t an option, you can buy safe, pasteurized breast milk from donors at milk banks. The Northwest Mothers Milk Bank tests milk donated at partner hospitals in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington.
Distribution sites in the Seattle area include:
Overlake Hospital Medical Center Mom and Baby Care Center in Bellevue: 1051 116th Ave. N.E., Suite 200, Monday through Saturday 9 a.m.-5 p.m., 425-688-5389
EvergreenHealth Medical Center Postpartum Care Center in Kirkland: 12303 N.E. 130th Lane, Suite 320 Coral, Monday through Saturday 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m., 425-899-3602
Those interested in donating breastmilk can call the Northwest Mothers Milk Bank at 503-469-0955 or visit nwmmb.org for more information.
Don’t share breast milk or buy directly from donors
Breast milk sharing has risen in popularity, according to Lee, who does not recommend informal breast milk sharing. Whether it is between friends, communities or acquired through the internet, there are potential risks if milk is not screened for illnesses or medications. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Human Milk Banking Association of North America discourage the practice as well and recommend consulting a health care provider first or using milk that has been tested.
Check social media groups
The American Academy of Pediatricians recommends checking social media groups dedicated to infant feeding and formula. Members may share ideas for where to find formula. Check any advice with your pediatrician.
Check formula for recalls
If you get your hands on formula, check that it wasn’t recalled for possible Cronobacter contamination by looking at the product code or entering the lot code on the Abbott website: similacrecall.com or call 800-986-8540.
Similac PM 60/40 powdered formula: Lot # 27032K80 (can) and Lot # 27032K800 (case) were recalled on Feb. 28.
Similac, Alimentum and EleCare powdered formula: Recalled on Feb. 17 and should be discarded if you see all three of these:
- First two digits of the code are 22 through 37, AND
- on the container contains “K8,” “SH,” or “Z2,” AND
- Use-by date is 4-1-2022 (APR 2022) or later.
Contact a health care provider if your baby has symptoms of illness from Cronobacter — a bacteria — which include fever, poor feeding, excessive crying or very low energy, according to the CDC. Some infants may also have seizures.
For a full list of recalled products visit the FDA’s consumer advisory page: st.news/FDAFormulaRecall.
Store formula safely
Once you’ve checked that your formula is safe, be sure to use it before the “Use By” date and store safely.
Use formula within two hours of preparation and within one hour from when feeding begins. If not used within two hours, immediately store it in the fridge and use within 24 hours, according to the CDC.
Throw out formula left in the bottle after feeding. Store unopened formula containers in a cool, dry place indoors with lid tightly closed. Do not store it in the refrigerator. Most infant formula needs to be used within one month after the container is opened.
Seattle Times staff reporter Daisy Zavala Magaña contributed to this report.