Empty formula shelves

How Pittsburgh-area parents are coping with the baby formula shortage

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (May 16, 2022) – When Shannon Waldschmidt, 38, of West Deer, saw on Facebook that her friend was desperately searching for a particular type of formula for her 8-month-old son, she and other moms sprang into action to help her track it down.

Pittsburgh-area parents are feeling the effects of a national shortage of baby formula after the largest manufacturer in the country, Abbott Nutrition, issued a recall in February of several of its powdered formulas. The recall came after concerns that a bacterial contamination at the company’s plant in Sturgis, Mich., led to illness in four infants and death in another two.

Combined with pandemic-related supply chain issues, formula stock is dwindling at grocery stores, pharmacies and other sellers in the region. In an April letter to the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Senator Bob Casey, D-Pa., said the recall “exacerbated the already-dire situation.”

On Monday, the FDA reached an agreement with Abbott on the steps needed to reopen the Sturgis plant. Once the plant reopens, the company said production could begin within about two weeks and could put more formula on store shelves in six to eight weeks, helping to alleviate the shortage. The FDA also announced guidance on importation of certain infant formula products to help increase the supply.

For now, stores in the Pittsburgh region are imposing purchase limits on infant formula. Giant Eagle began to limit quantity over the weekend to four units per customer. CVS is limiting customers to three baby formula products each. Purchase limits are in effect at Costco, Walmart and other stores as well.

The situation is so dire for parents that Ms. Waldschmidt created the Pittsburgh-Area Formula Finders Facebook group last week. She remembered the Facebook groups that popped up in the early days of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout to help high-risk people get immunization appointments and thought a similar resource could help parents find formula they need for their infants.

“I just did it. I thought, ‘why not me?’ I’m a mom of two who formula-fed her kids, but I don’t have babies at home. My kids are in school and I have the time, so why not?” she said.

In just six days of being online, the group has amassed more than 500 members, and Ms. Waldschmidt said she’s getting around 15 to 20 requests per hour from people who want to join the group.

Members are from all over the region, including Butler and Westmoreland counties. They’re using the group to post about the availability of certain formula brands at area stores and connect with other parents to trade or buy baby formula from one another. Some are generous enough to offer free formula they’re not using to parents in need. Others are traveling over state borders in search of formula and picking up extra for group members who can’t find what they need locally. Not all the members are parents looking for formula; some are just there to help.

“A lot of parents are saying that they’re able to find a little bit of relief, at least temporarily, knowing that they have enough formula to get their baby through the next few weeks,” Ms. Waldschmidt said. “Oftentimes people refer to social media as a place where a lot of bad things happen, and that’s true. But I’ve also seen it used for good, and this is just one of the cases.”

With the Abbott agreement offering hope that the shortage could be ending in a few months, experts urged parents to avoid panic-buying and offered tips on what to do in the meantime.

What parents can do

Dr. Pamela Schoemer, medical director of quality, safety and outcomes at UPMC Children’s Community Pediatrics, said parents and caregivers of healthy babies may need to consider switching to other brands of formula that may be in stock.

“For the vast majority of babies, switching formulas won’t cause a problem,” she said. “Look for a store brand, something that is reputable, but you may need to shop off the beaten path.”

Generic infant formulas don’t differ nutritionally from name brand ones. All infant formulas marketed in the United States have to meet certain nutrient specifications set by the FDA. Formulations may vary from company to company but they must contain at least the minimum levels of all nutrients specified by the FDA.

Dr. Schoemer recommended trying smaller stores and online outlets. “You don’t want to be buying a formula from outside of the country or from an auction site because you don’t know what you’re getting.”

Parents can also check with their pediatrician’s office, which often get free samples from formula companies. Food banks, as well as the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), can help low-income families source baby formula.

Babies with certain medical conditions may be eligible for a prescription for donor breast milk, said Denise O’Connor, executive director of Mid-Atlantic Mothers’ Milk Bank, based in Pittsburgh. The organization, which serves premature babies and infants with other medical needs, has seen a 20% increase in demand in recent weeks.

Ms. O’Connor said babies with gastrointestinal problems, immune disorders, congenital heart disease and allergies can qualify for donor milk.

While it’s not realistic for all mothers to breastfeed as an alternative to formula, Dr. Schoemer said lactation experts may be able to help some women re-establish a milk supply if they’ve just recently stopped breastfeeding or cut back.

Babies can transition to cow’s milk at 12 months old, so children older than that do not need infant formula.

What not to do

Infant health experts are warning parents and caregivers to not make or feed homemade infant formula to babies.

“There is a very delicate balance of nutrients that babies need,” Dr. Schoemer said.

Homemade formulas may lack essential nutrients for infant development or contain ingredients that babies can’t break down. They can cause calorie malnourishment, chronic diarrhea, growth issues, kidney problems and seizures.

“We’re talking potentially really serious health problems with homemade formula,” she said.

Similarly, she advised against stretching out formula by adding water to it. Diluting formula lowers its calorie content, which can lead to dehydration, weight loss and other problems.

Parents also should not replace infant formula with goat’s milk or toddler formula. According to the FDA, goat milk products lack multiple nutrients required for infant formula. Goat milk is also not pasteurized and may contain harmful bacteria that can be particularly dangerous to infants. Toddler formula is closer to cow’s milk than infant formula and not regulated by the FDA the same way as infant formulas are, so they’re not appropriate for babies under 12 months.

Expired formula should also not be used since its nutritional value declines after the expiration date.

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