Don’t know what to do amid baby formula shortage? Here’s what you need to know

Utah health experts addressed growing concerns and questions during a discussion Tuesday as the nationwide shortage of baby formula has continued, leaving parents frantically trying to provide for their children's nutritional needs.

The advice comes on the heels of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reaching a deal with Abbott Laboratories on Monday to reopen the plant after production was halted. The plant was closed in February after several infants fell ill after consuming formula produced at the plant. An investigation by the FDA revealed that deadly bacteria was present at the plant, prompting its shutdown.

The shutdown has only exacerbated a nationwide baby formula shortage that began with COVID-19 and related supply chain issues across the country.

Monday's decision would allow the formula company to begin production in the next two weeks — but it could be another six to eight weeks before formula reaches shelves. With the growing panic and continued empty shelves, University of Utah Health experts advised parents on the do's and don'ts of the shortage.

"It's really become a really difficult issue for families who have a lot of anxiety around what to do if they can't find the formula that they need for their baby," said Dr. Wendy Hopson-Rohrer, U. Health pediatrician and associate vice president for health sciences education.

Do: Ask your doctor if you can switch brands

Health experts advised families who cannot find their formula on the shelf to consider switching to another brand. Those whose infants are not on a specialized formula can look to other brands to supplement amid the shortage, said Hopson-Rohrer. To switch formulas, parents should first consult with a physician and then begin slowly introducing the new formula.

"It is OK to switch. Sometimes babies have a little bit of trouble between switching because the taste is a little bit different. It's the same as if we've changed between brands of soda, for instance. So the taste is a little different," Hopson-Rohrer said.

To best implement the change, Hopson-Rohrer advises slowly reducing the amount of the previous brand while adding the new brand of formula. The content and nutritional value between the two brands will be relatively the same, she added.

"Formulas are relatively equivalent in terms of what this contains. So if you're on cow's milk-based formula, it's just about the same. The ones that we're most concerned about are the elemental formulas and some of the speciality formulas for babies that have allergies or other reasons where they can't tolerate either a soy-based or a milk-based formula," said Hopson-Rohrer.

If you're among parents whose infant can't switch for those reasons, Hopson-Rohrer advised reaching out to your pediatrician or local Women, Infants and Children office. The pediatrician or WIC office may be able to provide you with samples of the specialized formula until production and supply returns, or help with an alternative.

Don't: Turn to formula alternatives or homemade recipes

Desperation amid the shortage has led some parents to turn to alternative methods of meeting their infant's nutritional needs, diluting formula or creating homemade formula. Recipes and alternatives have been posted across social media pages used to swap or notify parents about various formula supply in stores.

University of Utah Health experts warned against resorting to any of the previously mentioned methods, emphasizing the danger it can hold for an infant.

"The real reason that you don't want to use your own formulations is because we want to use the technology and everything that's been studied in terms of the formulas that are on the market and FDA-approved. They're in that category for a reason because they have been studied and we know that they are safe and the healthiest thing for babies other than human breast milk," said Michelle Hoffman, deputy director at the Utah Department of Health.

Diluting the formula also dilutes the nutritional value and prevents an infant from receiving all the necessary calories, she added.

While some exceptions can be made for infants who are older in terms of cow's milk, Hoffman emphasized that breast milk or formula is the best option for infants.

What about sharing breast milk?

Many social media posts have advised mothers to turn to their local milk banks of donated breast milk amid the shortage. While Utah opened the Mountain West Mother's Milk Bank in 2020, the donations are dedicated to sick and fragile babies. The milk is often sold to hospitals for its newborn intensive care units and the well-baby population that has some transitional issues.

"A lot of information is going out about contacting the milk bank for pasteurized milk, and we don't have that availability to be providing that milk to the outpatient population," said Elizabeth Kirts, lactation manager at University of Utah Hospital and Mountain West Mother's Milk Bank's board chairwoman.

While not all populations can access the milk donations, Kirts still encouraged anyone who could donate to do so as donations experience shortages of their own.

But what about donations outside of the Mountain West Mother's Milk Bank? What about mother-to-mother?

"In an ideal world, mother-to-mother milk sharing is a wonderful thing and it's a wonderful gift from one mom to another — but we have to be very aware that it is not regulated. There aren't the protections that are put in place with a milk bank," said Kirts.

"So if someone makes the decision to go that route, then it is a very good idea to work with their own health care provider to look at all the benefits and risks, and then to do very good screening."

What is Utah's WIC program doing in the meantime?

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Utah's Women, Infant and Children program has had waivers enacted since the recall began to expand formula options for Utahns. The expanded formula packages have allowed families flexibility at the grocery store instead of having to buy one prescribed formula, according to JoDell Geilmann-Parke, Utah's WIC vendor coordinator.

Additionally, the local WIC office has worked with grocery stores across the state to identify holes and shift product between stores or areas to best fit the needs of families. The program has also worked with Utah WIC families on identifying possible tips and tricks for finding formula, while advising of the dangers of turning to alternatives.

On Tuesday, Geilmann-Parke issued a vendor memo, reminding them that the program does not have a policy that would limit their ability to control the number of formula cans purchased in a daily transaction or in a single transaction by family across the state. The panel advised parents not to purchase more than necessary while at the grocery stores, leaving product for other families.

"Perhaps most importantly, we have lent our voice to a variety of groups and organizations across the state who are very concerned about the health and well-being of Utah babies,” Geilmann-Parke said. “We are doing everything that we can to support finding resolutions wherever we can contribute to those resolutions.”

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