The formula shortage crisis: why, how, and what do I do now?
We are in the midst of an unprecedented formula shortage which is creating a crisis for parents of babies who rely on formula for some or all of their diet. Parents in need of formula must know what their options are in order to feed their babies during this stressful time.
Although it is very important to understand how we got here (which you can do below!) so that we can avoid it in the future, this is not the time to tell people how they should feed their babies or what they should have been doing in order to avoid this crisis. Right now we want to make sure that parents have the resources they need. Parents do not shoulder this blame!
What Can I Do Now During The Formula Shortage Crisis?
If you are unsure of how you will feed your baby:
Ask for Samples
Ask your local hospital, clinic, pediatrician, midwife, or OB if they have received any formula samples available to share with you.
Try Switching Brands
While it may not be ideal, try switching brands to whatever is available, provided your baby does not have a medical need for a specific formula.
Try Social Media
Post on Facebook in parenting networks near you or neighborhood groups to see if somebody has extra. Write a post with exactly what you need and you may find parents who no longer need their supply of formula are willing to meet up and share or sell their stash. You can also check social media accounts or groups dedicated to infant feeding to see if others have ideas for where to find formula. Make sure to check any advice with your pediatrician.
While many people purchase formula at big box stores or the major online retailers, check smaller stores and drug stores, which may not be out of their formula supply like the bigger stores are.
If you can afford it, buy formula from other countries. There is a long history of Americans buying European formula due to their more stringent food regulations. This is an expensive option, but if you can afford it, consider buying extra and giving it to someone who cannot.
Ask Your Local Foodbank
Click here to find your local foodbank. Food pantries and shelters may have some formula as well.
Ask Your Local Milk Bank
Click here to find the milk bank closest to you and to see if you’re eligible for donor breastmilk.
If you are eligible, contact your local WIC agency to see if they can help you access formula.
Consider Informal Milk Sharing
Informal milk sharing is not for everyone, but historically cross-nursing happened regularly in all cultures when a person did not survive childbirth or produce enough milk for their baby. If you know someone who produces an excess of milk and you know their health history you may feel comfortable taking their milk. There are also many people sharing their milk through Facebook in groups like “Human Milk for Human Babies” in which you do your own personal screening to decide if it is safe for you. It’s important to note that some diseases and medications can be passed through breast milk, so you’ll need to make your own informed decision about this.
Build Your Milk Supply
If you are currently combination feeding or nursing part-time, you can try to build your milk supply. Click here to read our blog about our suggestions for boosting the quantity of milk you are making. Please note: This is not an option if you are in a crisis situation and need to feed your baby immediately. It may not be an option for people who have never nursed, stopped nursing a while ago, or for people who have various conditions which might limit, inhibit or make them completely unable to create a milk supply, such as Insufficient Glandular Tissue (IGT), various hormonal issues, history of breast cancer, trauma, etc.
But why is there a shortage of formula right now?
Immediate Causes of the Formula Shortage.
Across industries, the COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated numerous problems inherent to our economic system. Among them, it has triggered supply chain issues and labor shortages that have made some formula ingredients scarce and have made it difficult, overall, to get products out of warehouses and onto store shelves for parents.
The formula shortage was worsened by a recall at Abbott Nutrition (a major producer of formula) in February after four babies were hospitalized with bacterial infections and two died. As the shortage has grown, many people began stockpiling formula, further reducing the amount of formula available on the shelves.
But how did we get here?
Long Term Causes of the Formula Shortage
In the United States, 83% of new parents initiate bodyfeeding/breastfeeding. Despite the fact that most people in the United States want to nurse, there are many factors which make it extremely difficult for people to continue nursing after they start. By 3 months of age, less than half of infants in the United States are still exclusively breastfeeding, despite research which has compelled the American Academy of Pediatrics to recommend exclusive breastfeeding until 6 months of age or beyond. A multitude of factors have caused a much greater reliance on formula than there would otherwise be.
In brief, parents are simply not supported to breastfeed at the time of birth, during postpartum, or beyond. Let’s examine the long term causes of the precipitous drop in lactation rates that happens within the first year of life:
- Hospitals Interfere
Common medical interventions (e.g. epidurals, c-sections) and hospital protocols (separating parent and baby) delay and/or get in the way of the initiation of bodyfeeding. Skin-to-skin contact is proven to increase the likelihood of lactation initiation and yet this still does not happen at all births. Many people do not realize just how essential the first hours and days of life are for establishing a milk supply that can sustain a baby. When babies are separated from their parents, manual milk expression and pumping can also make a difference in long-term milk supply, but parents are rarely informed about this. Interference with or lack of knowledgeable support during that critical period can have detrimental long-term effects on a milk supply.
- Lactation Support is Lacking in Hospitals
Too frequently there are not enough lactation consultants to support the number of new families seeking support. Even when there are lactation consultants, the average visit is very short, and they cannot provide individualized and ongoing care plans the way in-home consultants can.
- Lack of Affordable Lactation Support at Home
In-home lactation consultants play a key role in initiating and sustaining a breastfeeding relationship, but they can be expensive. Despite the fact that the Affordable Care Act requires insurance companies to cover lactation support, it continues to be difficult to get on-demand lactation support fully covered by private insurance and almost impossible to get covered by Medicaid. Since most insurance companies do not have enough in-network lactation providers, most families need to pay privately upfront and then ask their insurance company for reimbursement. In the absence of a national healthcare system, this is a significant barrier to parents in need of timely lactation help.
- No Paid Parental Leave
Even when breastfeeding is successfully established, in a country where there is no mandated parental leave, maintaining breastfeeding can be extremely challenging. In order to keep up your milk supply while apart from your baby, you have to have the type of job and a supportive workplace environment in which you can pump or express as frequently as your baby would nurse and have a place to safely store your milk. Beyond this, there are many hidden costs to pumping, including buying milk storage bags, replacing pump parts, refrigeration, exhaustion, etc.
- Aggressive & Ubiquitous Formula Marketing
Beyond formula becoming a necessary default, the formula companies have engaged in insidious marketing campaigns that have convinced parents that formula is exactly equal, if not better, than breastmilk. Their marketing tactics have exploited the strong emotions, anxieties and ambitions of vulnerable new parents, by way of social media, healthcare professionals, and through baby sites and stores. In particular, the formula companies have targeted Black, Indigenous, and other parents of color, leading to a greater dependence on formula in BIPOC communities, which, in turn, are disproportionately impacted by the formula shortage crisis. Please see the foremost expert on this topic, Kimberly Sears Allers (of @theIrthapp and @iamksearsallers on Instagram), who details the history of formula marketing in Black and brown communities in her book The Big Let Down,
Formula feeding parents are particularly vulnerable at this time. Telling someone to “just breastfeed/bodyfeed” during this crisis, when so many are unable to, is not helpful and shortsighted. If you want to contribute during this crisis and you have some extra formula that you don’t need, please DM or email us and we will make sure to match you to someone in need.
At boober, we strive to help all families make the feeding choices that work best for them, and, in order to truly have a choice in the first place, parents must be fully informed. Unfortunately, our economic system and government policy do not leave room for much choice at all. Now with a shortage of formula, the majority of American families with newborns are not just lacking options, but have been left in a dire situation, wondering how they will feed their babies. American families deserve better! Another way to contribute during this crisis can be to contact your local, state, and federal officials to demand meaningful changes to the policies deeply impacting parents and babies!