Meghan Block of Weymouth, Mass., starts her search at 5 a.m. every morning – combing local retailer websites for baby formula.
Her own children have been off it for years. But her cousin in New Hampshire has a 2-month-old son who needs hypoallergenic formula, and the nationwide shortage has left the new mom scrambling to find what her baby needs.
“I’d equate this to how we were all frantically looking for vaccine appointments when they first rolled out,” Ms. Block said. “Parents are all mobilizing for each other.”
She added, “What people aren’t talking about is the stress on new mothers this is causing. If you’re on the edge of the baby blues and postpartum depression, and you can’t find food for your babies – these parents could be in crisis.”
For weeks, a pandemic-induced supply chain shortage – along with a massive recall from top formula manufacturer Abbott Nutrition – has left shelves empty and parents panicked, fearing their dwindling formula supplies will disappear entirely.
Abbott announced that its previously shuttered Michigan factory would reopen, but it remains unclear how soon that will make a noticeable difference.
The Food and Drug Administration announced Monday, May 16, that it would ease restrictions for selling foreign-made baby formula in the U.S. to broaden supply.
President Joe Biden invoked the the Defense Production Act on May 18, which requires suppliers to send resources to formula plants before giving them to other customers. The president is also authorizing the Defense Department to use commercial aircraft to pick up infant formula overseas that meets federal standards and fly it to the U.S. – a measure dubbed “Operation Fly Formula.”
But in the meantime, hospital staff and pediatricians are fielding questions from parents that they can’t always answer.
“People want to know if the shortage is ending soon, and that’s hard to predict. Even with the factory back online, the end could still be 1-3 months away,” Joshua Wechsler, MD, pediatric gastroenterologist at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, said in an interview.
Most formulas on the market have comparable alternatives, Dr. Wechsler said, but there are fewer options for parents of special-needs babies – those with allergies and specific dietary requirements.
This has required around-the-clock work from dietitians and pediatricians to find sufficient options for these babies and monitor their ability to tolerate new kinds of formula.
“We’re advising parents not to dilute formula, not to buy it from sources you’re unfamiliar with, and no homemade formulas,” Dr. Wechsler said.
He said in some instances he has seen weight loss among babies whose supplies were stretching thin, and in very rare cases, hospitalizations.
According to recent reports, two children were hospitalized in mid-May at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, Memphis, Tenn., as a result of the formula shortage.
Those most affected by the crisis, doctors say, are lower-income families. Half of the infant formula purchased in the United States is through Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) benefits, a federal assistance program, which provides formula for free but only limited types and brands.
But in most cases, hospitals and pediatricians have the means to provide caregivers with supplementary formula, said Amy Hair, MD, program director of neonatal nutrition at Texas Children’s Hospital.
“Here in the hospital, we’re OK, because we’re able to switch through different options for patients and we’re sending families home with a short supply to bridge them over,” Dr. Hair said. “We encourage patients to talk to their pediatricians, who usually have in-office supplies.”
She also advises parents to look in smaller pharmacies and stores rather than bigger retailers, along with ordering it straight from the formula manufacturers online.
“We’re reassuring families we think this is temporary,” Dr. Hair said. “Providers have been dealing with this for a while, so we have some strategies in place to help caregivers through the shortage.”
In the meantime, parents continue to lean on each other for help and resources. Ms. Block’s cousin in New Hampshire, Jamie Boudreau, said she has friends and family on the lookout across the country for hypoallergenic formula for her son.
She currently has about a 1-month supply, but she worries constantly that will be depleted before the shortage ends.
“It’s definitely been very stressful,” Ms. Boudreau said. “I, as an adult, can go days without eating, but my tiny 2-month-old little boy – he can’t go more than 3 hours. What am I going to do if in 4 weeks I don’t have any more?”