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Few things are more frightening than not having enough food for your baby. Since the coronavirus (COVID-19) swept into the United States, many parents have felt panicked by the sight of empty formula shelves in stores or the temporary “out of stock” notices at some online retailers.
Social media channels and the our site Community have been lit up with conversations about the issue, including hoaxes promising free formula and false claims about the benefits of various homemade formula recipes. To find out the truth about the formula situation, our site spoke to healthcare providers, infant nutrition experts, and several formula manufacturers.
Is there a formula shortage?
Experts assure that there is no actual shortage of formula – hoarding has just made it look like there is.
The doctors we spoke with said that in the early days of the crisis, mass buying was an issue and some families saw empty shelves, but there is enough formula available. They encourage parents to stay calm and expand where they looked for their formula. You can also ask your retailer if more formula is available in the stockroom and when the next shipment is expected.
A clinical dietician with Nationwide Children's Hospital, in Ohio, Annette Haban Bartz stressed that parents should also be flexible in the formula they give their child. If there is no special situation that demands a specific brand or variety, Haban Bartz recommends that "for any infant who is mostly drinking formula with none or small amount of foods, substituting a formula with another brand of formula is an option. Choose formulas that are alike." If you plan to use an alternate, look for formulas with similar ingredients or purposes (such as anti-colic or allergy).
Similac, a major formula manufacturer, says on its site that "at this time, there is no impact on availability of Similac nutrition products or distribution in the U.S." In a direct response to BabyCenter, the company said it is "focused on doing all that we can to ensure adequate supply at retail for all customers who need it. If a local retailer is currently out of inventory, it may mean they have not adjusted the inventory or that people are stocking up and pantry loading. We encourage our customers to try one of our many online options to have what they need delivered directly to their door."
Enfamil told our site that it has been working with "our employees, suppliers, and distributors to maintain availability and safe, high-quality production of our formulas in the coming weeks." It also recommends checking its FAQ on formula availability.
Gerber directed our site to its statement that it has increased production and that it is "providing more formula, food and beverages to retailers so that they can restock their shelves as soon as possible."
Okay, great. But where can I find formula now?
If you still find your local store's shelves empty, here's where you can buy formula – and a few places you should avoid.
Manufacturer's websites: While some sizes and types of formula are sold out, many manufacturers still have formula for sale on their sites, including:
Walmart's Parent's Choice
The Honest Company
If your usual brand of formula isn't available, consider switching. All infant formula sold by reputable retail outlets is safe, meets FDA requirements, and contains the nutrients babies need to thrive. This includes name- or store-brand, organic, and premium varieties.
If you're not sure what to switch to, call your pediatrician and ask for recommendations similar to the type of formula you normally use, or what words to look for on the label to find a suitable substitute. Your pediatrician may recommend that you stick with the same formula type you've been using, for example soy, cow's milk, or special varieties for preemies or babies at risk of developing allergies.
When you do find formula on the manufacturer's site, note that there may be different purchasing rules than you may be used to. Enfamil, for example, has restricted orders to two items per order and one order every two weeks.
Use store locators: Each formula company has a store locator on its website that allows you to search for local stores that stock your brand and type of formula. Try calling the store first to make sure the formula is in stock, though some retailers may not be taking specific inventory questions at this hectic time. Here are the store locator links from:
Walmart's Parent's Choice
The Honest Company
Consider different local retailers: Walmart, Target, and large grocery stores are currently most often sold out of formula. Try calling around to local pharmacies, convenience stores, and baby specialty stores to see if they have any. If they say no, ask if they know of any stores with your brand.
Ask everyone about restocking. Some stores might not be fielding questions on specific inventory, but speak with a manager and find out when the store (or its other outlets) plans to get more inventory. Returning at that time will boost your odds of getting what you need.
Call local food banks and relief agencies: Food banks and food pantries have formula available for their clients, and they may have enough to give parents who are truly in an emergency situation.
The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), a government program that provides supplemental foods for pregnant and postpartum women and children up to age 5, may also be able to help.
Sarah Diaz, policy and media coordinator for California WIC, explains that some WIC agencies may have formula available to give away, but others, such as those in California, provide point-of-purchase cards so that clients can buy formula for themselves. "If they have WIC or need WIC, they should definitely contact their local agencies," she recommends. "WIC vendor liaisons work with local grocery stores to make sure their clients can get formula, and they may know where to send callers." Visit 211.org to find local food-assistance agencies.
Ask your pediatrician: Your child's doctor may have formula samples that can be shared with patients in the case of emergencies or shortfalls.
Ask your network: Mother's Milk Bank of Austin executive director Kim Updegrove says she's seen successful parent requests on Nextdoor and other social media outlets. "People say they need diapers or formula, and others who have enough or even too much will offer to leave something on their porch for pickup," says Updegrove. "People are being shockingly helpful in these moments of crisis."
Call local hospitals: They may have samples available for parents or may otherwise know how to direct those in need of formula.
Contact a local milk bank: Milk banks are primarily intended for children who need human milk for health reasons, but some may have emergency supplies to donate. Updegrove says Mothers' Milk Bank of Austin can grant up to 10 bottles of breast milk to parents with a desperate need. Some banks may be willing to sell milk to those who need it, but it's pricey: At Mothers' Milk Bank of Austin, human milk runs $4.65 an ounce, and at Mothers' Milk Bank of San Jose, it's $3.75 per ounce.
What should I do if I still can't find my formula?
Don't wait to take action. Formula-fed babies need the nutrients and hydration in these products, and going without is dangerous. Haban Bartz says parents should call their doctor right away to run through what the alternatives might be. For example, a pediatrician may recommend that a 12- month-old baby who's eating several solid-food meals per day switch to whole milk.
But it's important to note that regular milk is not an option for other babies, especially for the very young, as it can cause irritation of the gut and bleeding, which can lead to anemia. And even if you do have a year-old baby and your doctor allows you to give whole milk, you would likely need to return to formula once the formula is available.
If your baby is between 4 and 6 months of age or older, is showing signs of readiness, and you get the okay from your doctor, this may be a good time to introduce your baby to solids. Though keep in mind that babies this age will still need some formula or breast milk in their diet. But at least in starting solids, you can potentially cut back in the amount of formula you are using right now.
With so much misinformation and rumors circulating about formula, stick to these tactics and advice to keep your baby safe:
DON'T buy formula from nonreputable sources: Flea markets and eBay aren't safe places to buy formula. The products may be expired – formulas expire quickly – or they may be contaminated, have compromised packaging, or be otherwise unsafe or questionable for your baby.
DON'T make your own formula: Worried parents are trading homemade formula recipes online, but doctors caution against this tactic. Updegrove says, "Children have specific nutrient requirements, and formulas, while not able to duplicate breastmilk, provide those nutrients. You can't be sure if a homemade formula is safe and healthy for your baby." Haban Bartz adds that "there are concerns about making formula at home due to unintentional contamination, mixing error, or inappropriate calorie/nutrient composition."
DON'T give cow's milk to babies under 1 year: Babies can't digest cow's milk as completely or easily as breast milk or formula. Cow's milk contains high concentrations of protein and minerals, which can tax your baby's immature kidneys. It also doesn't contain the right amount of iron, vitamin C, and other nutrients for infants. In addition, cow's milk may even cause iron-deficiency anemia in some babies, since cow's milk protein can irritate the lining of the digestive system, leading to blood in the stool. Finally, cow's milk doesn't provide the healthiest types of fat for growing babies.
DON'T dilute your baby's formula with water: Doing this reduces the nutrition your baby's getting, which can be dangerous for development.
DON'T give toddler formula to a baby: These formulas are made to meet the nutritional needs of toddlers and are not adequate for babies.
DON'T contact formula makers asking for free formula: A recent online hoax suggested that parents could call manufacturers to get free formula. That's not true. Enfamil says in its coronavirus FAQ, "Contrary to rumors in some online social networks, we are not distributing free cases of formula. We are instead focused on ensuring equitable availability for every baby." Other major manufacturers have debunked this rumor, too.
our site understands that the coronavirus pandemic is an evolving story and that your questions will change over time. We'll continue asking moms and dads in our Community what they want to know, and we'll get the answers from experts to keep them – and you – informed and supported.
- Raising a baby, toddler, or young child
- Rarity of infection in babies, toddlers, and young children
- Parents' concerns
- Pregnancy and the coronavirus (COVID-19): Symptoms, social distancing, and staying calm
- Coronavirus (COVID-19): How not to touch your face from the experts
You can also see our baby, toddler, and young child FAQs, pregnancy FAQs, or visit our dedicated group discussing COVID-19.
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