Short on Baby Formula? Here’s What to Do

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If you went shopping for baby formula only to be met with an empty or near-empty shelf, you’re not alone. 

The US is in the throes of a formula shortage. As with many products, the pandemic has caused issues with supply of baby formula, and it’s been exacerbated in recent months by a voluntary recall of some formula brands made by Abbott. (Here’s how to check if yours was included.)

The out-of-stock rate for baby formula was between 2% and 8% for the first months of 2021, according to Datasembly. But for the week ending May 8, the nationwide out-of-stock rate was 43%, the retail tracking site said. 

But being short on baby formula is different than running out of other foods — for many infants, it’s their only supply of nutrients. 

The US Food and Drug Administration announced an update Tuesday on its work with formula manufacturers to increase production. The FDA also said it isn’t opposed to parents reaching out to Abbott to receive “life-sustaining” specialty formula from the facility where products have been on hold because of the recall, but Abbott will release these products on a case-by-case basis, depending on individual needs.

Abbott said it is working with health care professionals and state agencies to offer alternative formulas when possible. The company also said it’s prioritizing liquid ready-to-feed formula products, and bringing in formula shipments from an FDA-registered plant in Europe. 

Other formula manufacturers are “meeting or exceeding” capacity levels to meet the demand, according to the FDA. 

Here’s what pediatricians say to do if you run out of formula.


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Where to look for baby formula if yours is out of stock

Retailers including CVS, Walgreens and Target have all placed limits on how many products you can purchase at once. Despite this, shelves in some stores are barren. 

If you can’t find your formula, call your pediatrician to see if they have any in stock. Pediatricians often get samples of different formulas and may be able to help out, says Dr. Steven Abelowitz, pediatrician and medical director of Coastal Kids.

“Other places that folks can look at are different charities,” Abelowitz said. Some charities or food assistance programs, such as the Women, Infants and Children nutrition assistance program have income requirements. However, given the shortage, some assistance programs may be more willing to expand eligibility, depending on the area or circumstance.

The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends checking smaller stores instead of the big retailers (like your local “mom and pop” shop or drug store). Social media groups dedicated to parenting may also have good resources for your area, and you may meet another parent with extra in stock. 

But make sure to run any advice you get from parenting groups by your pediatrician, the AAP notes. 

You also shouldn’t buy baby formula from overseas, the AAP says, without knowing it’s been FDA-reviewed for nutrition and safety. The same goes for auction sites.

Is it OK to switch brands? 

“Of course it’s preferred to stick to the same formula,” Abelowitz said, but the next alternative is finding a formula as similar as possible to the one you were using. Because there are so many formula brands, Abelowitz recommends reaching out to your pediatrician to see which formulas would be acceptable swaps. 

Because not everyone has a pediatrician they can refer to, you can also call your local pharmacy and ask to speak with a pharmacist about an alternative formula for your child, Abelowitz says.

But you should really stay away from swapping between infant and toddler formula, he says. Baby formula and toddler formula are made to address different nutritional needs. 

There are also exceptions if your child has allergies or a medical condition: “If your baby is allergic to standard formulas and you need a broken-down formula, then it’s critical that you stick to that same type of formula,” Abelowitz said. If this is the case for your child, make sure you talk to a pediatrician, family doctor or other expert before introducing a new food. 

In emergency situations, you can call 2-1-1 or contact Feeding America to be connected to a community specialist who can help you find local resources, according to the Infant Nutrition Council of America. 

A smiling person is handed a can of baby formula.

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Is it OK to make your own baby formula? 

“Never,” said Abelowitz. It can be dangerous from a nutritional standpoint, in that the formula might be lacking essential nutrients, but it can also contain the wrong amount of electrolytes, which can cause health problems. 

“Although recipes for homemade formulas circulating on the internet may seem healthy or less expensive, they are not safe and do not meet your baby’s nutritional needs,” the AAP said. “Infant deaths have been reported from use of some homemade formulas.” 

What about cow’s milk as a substitute?

Cow’s milk contains insufficient amounts of iron, Abelowitz says, and shouldn’t be given to babies under 1 year old. Oat or plant milks are also lacking in protein and minerals. 

The AAP, however, says that whole milk from a cow (not the non-fat stuff) is OK to feed a baby six months and older “for a brief period of time in a pinch.” That is, it’s better than any other alternative — including homemade formula. If it becomes necessary, the AAP says, incorporate iron-containing solid foods into your baby’s diet or talk to your pediatrician about an iron supplement. Fortified soy milk may also be an option “for a few days in an emergency” for babies who are close to 1 year old, the AAP says, but change back to formula as soon as possible. 

But whatever you do, according to the AAP and Abelowitz, don’t water down your baby’s formula to make it last longer. 

“This causes nutritional imbalances, and there is a thing called water intoxication, which can be very dangerous when there’s too much water as opposed to formula,” he said. Specifically, sodium levels can become too low, causing hyponatremia, he says.

One last formula tip from Abelowitz: Don’t buy formula in bulk that you don’t need. 

“By hoarding up on it, you’re obviously affecting a lot of other people,” Abelowtiz said. To help ease the supply issue, the AAP advises buying no more than a 10- to 14-day supply of formula at a time. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.

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