Five things you should know about the baby formula shortage

a mother feeds her baby from a bottle


In this article: 

  • A Swedish pediatrician offers advice for parents dealing with the anxieties of the baby formula shortage.

  • Whether formula feeding or breastfeeding, the most important thing is to affirm your commitment to feeding, nurturing and loving your child.

  • Parents may be able to find formula through charities, social media groups and parent networks, or explore other options such as donated breast milk.

Supplies of baby formula across the country have been drastically curtailed in recent weeks by ongoing supply chain issues and the shuttering of the country’s largest formula manufacturing plant. The shortage has become so serious that President Joe Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to speed infant formula production and authorize imports from overseas. Elizabeth Meade, M.D., FAA, IBCLC, Swedish’s medical director of education, outreach and quality for pediatrics, answers some questions about the shortage and shares advice for parents to help ensure their infants are receiving proper nutrition. 

Parents across the country are scrambling to feed their children as we face severe shortages of multiple formula types. As the mom of an infant, I wholeheartedly feel your fear and anxiety about being able to feed your child. And as a pediatrician and lactation consultant, I am fearful that this shortage will lead to dangerous consequences for babies and families. For parents who are formula-feeding a child — whether by choice or by circumstance — it is important to affirm that your commitment to feeding, nurturing and loving your child is no different than a family for whom breastfeeding is the path to doing so. 

If you are directly affected by the formula shortage, you likely have a lot of questions about how best to feed your baby. Please remember that the advice here is for urgent situations during the shortage, not for everyday use, and you should consult your physician for advice and about any medical decisions.

Where can I find formula?

We are seeing national shortages, but they seem to be worse in certain states, namely Tennessee, Kansas, Delaware, Nevada, Texas, Arizona, Montana, West Virginia and Washington, DC. If you can’t find formula at your usual retail outlets, be sure to check smaller stores and drug stores, as they may have supply even when large chain stores do not. If your family can afford it, the American Academy of Pediatrics encourages buying formula online until store shortages improve. Be sure to buy from well-recognized distributors and pharmacies rather than individuals or auction sites. 

However, for many families, this may be cost-prohibitive. Check with your pediatrician and your local Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) office, as they may have contacts with formula representatives or charities that have some formula available. 

You may also investigate social media groups dedicated to infant feeding and formula, though be aware of scams or those seeking to make money from the shortage. Talk with other parents you know in your area and consider trying to network resources, such as borrowing formula if a family has an excess and keeping each other informed about store restocks. We advise buying no more than 10 to 14 days’ worth of formula right now to help ease overall shortages. 

Can I use a different formula than our typical choice?

In many cases, yes! For most babies, you can switch to any available formula, including store brands. If your baby is on a specific hydrolyzed or amino acid-based formula (Elecare or Alimentum, for example), he or she likely needs to stay on that exact formula unless directed otherwise by a medical professional. If you have any questions about whether your baby can switch formulas to one that you are able to find, talk with your pediatrician or family doctor first before making any changes.

What about toddler formula or milk?

Toddler formula is not recommended for infants. Actually, it is not necessarily recommended at all, as most babies can change to regular cow’s milk or no milk after age 1! But if you have no other choice, it is likely safe for short durations — days, not weeks — if your baby is close to a year of age. 

Similarly, if your child is over 6 months old and you are not able to find formula anywhere, you can feed them whole cow’s milk for a brief period. The biggest concern with this is that it can cause iron-deficiency anemia, so make sure to include iron-rich solid foods in their diet at the same time. You can also talk with your child’s doctor about giving an iron supplement if cow’s milk is necessary to feed your baby right now. Using either one of these alternatives is much safer than trying to make your own formula or using other alternative milks, such as almond, oat or hemp, as these are often too low in protein and minerals to meet babies’ nutritional needs. 

Soy milk may be an option if your baby is close to a year in age. Again, this is only recommended for a brief period until you can change back to formula. If you do choose to incorporate soy milk, make sure it is fortified with protein and calcium. Soy milk should NOT be given as an alternative to cow’s milk for a baby who is allergic unless directed by a doctor, as many babies who are allergic to cow’s milk will also be allergic to soy.

Can I dilute my formula to make it last longer?

No, this should not be done under any circumstances! This is one of the most dangerous potential outcomes of the formula shortage. Watering down formula for infants can cause serious health problems and imbalances in their nutrition and electrolytes, leading to hospitalization or even death — especially for young infants. Always follow the directions for mixing the formula on the packaging itself or instructions given to you by your child’s doctor.

What about switching to breast milk?

Breast milk is nutritionally optimal for babies, and may be an alternative for you even if your baby has previously been partially or fully formula-fed. Many parents are asking questions about re-inducing lactation or trying to increase their supply if they are currently doing some breastfeeding. 

You should work closely with your pediatrician and/or lactation consultant to get more information about how to do this safely and effectively. If you are a breastfeeding parent with an excess of pumped breast milk, consider donating to a milk bank to help families who are using donor milk. Donor breast milk, if available, can be a wonderful option for many babies who do not have specific medical needs for which it is contraindicated. The safest way to donate or receive donor breast milk is through an accredited milk bank. Check with the Human Milk Banking Association of America for more information. For those seeking to donate, Swedish also has a breast milk drop-off site. 

This is a time of intense stress and worry. Please remember that it is important to care for yourself as well so that you can continue to care for your children. Always reach out to your child’s doctor if you have questions, concerns, or worries about how and what to feed your baby. We are following the formula shortage closely and working hard with manufacturers and agencies to provide as much safe formula as possible, as soon as possible.

Find a doctor

If you have questions about formula or what to feed your baby, contact Pediatrics at Swedish. We can accommodate both in-person and virtual visits.

Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult a doctor virtually, you have options. Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory.

Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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About the Author

Whether it relates to vaccinations, allergies, nutrition or sleep, The Swedish Pediatrics Team is committed to helping you find resources to ensure your littles grow up healthy and strong. Our clinical experts offer tips, tricks and clinical advice to help you take care of your children.

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