In February, Abbott Nutrition, a manufacturing company that controls 40% of the baby formula market in the U.S., shut down after traces of a deadly bacteria called Cronobacter sakazakii were detected in some of its formula. Since Abbott controls so much of the formula market, this shutdown, along with preexisting supply chain issues, caused the largest baby formula shortage our country has ever seen.
For months, parents searched multiple stores and supermarkets looking for formula. Online groups formed where people could share formula with each other. And the government set up Operation Fly Formula to import formula from other countries.
Now, just as Abbott has reopened and started production, a flood hit Sturgis, Michigan, where its formula manufacturing plant is located, causing it to shut down yet again. While Abbott emphasized that it produced enough formula to weather this second closure, this is disheartening for parents who are still feeling the effects of the shortage, especially in rural communities.
Over the last few months, I’ve received several questions from patients and media outlets about how to safely feed babies during this shortage. The main No. 1 question I’ve been asked?
Can I make my own baby formula?
My answer is an emphatic no! It is very dangerous to try and make your own formula. Seventy years ago, parents made their own formula and babies routinely got very sick from it. Homemade formulas can have contaminates because they haven’t been properly handled but more importantly, they don’t contain the proper nutrients that babies need in this critical stage of life.
What if I make the formula with cow’s milk?
When parents use cow’s milk in their formula, it has good protein but lacks the necessary iron for a baby’s growth. This can lead to iron deficiency in children and is the reason we postpone giving babies cow’s milk until after age one. By then, kids will get enough iron in their foods. Believe it or not, I once treated a toddler with such bad iron deficiency from drinking too much milk he went into heart failure.
What if I make the formula with goat’s milk?
Some parents use goat’s milk in their formula, but this is equally dangerous. Goat’s milk sounds more “natural,” which makes parents feel that it is good for their kids, but it lacks enough vitamin B12 and vitamin D. Vitamin D deficiency can cause rickets, and vitamin B12 deficiency causes another dangerous type of anemia.
In addition to using the wrong type of milk, homemade formula can carry too much of a glucose load and can contain too few or too many electrolytes like sodium, potassium and calcium. Low levels of these can cause seizures or heart arrhythmias.
What should I do if I can’t make my own formula and can’t find formula at the store?
At my practice, we’ve been encouraging mothers to breastfeed as long as possible, but we also know that isn’t possible for many women. Maybe breastfeeding just never worked for you and your child, or you work away from the home and can’t pump as regularly as you would have to.
In this situation, call your pediatrician. We sometimes have samples of formula we can give you. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has listed several resources you can try if you’re unable to find formula in your area, including trying a human milk bank or getting in touch with your nearest Community Action Center, which may be able to provide you with formula until the shortage subsides.
Parents of infants and babies, this has been a tough season for you after an already tough season of having and raising a baby during a global pandemic. Fortunately, there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel for this formula shortage. Hang in there. Do what you can. Talk to your pediatrician. We’re here for times like these.