The Formula Milk Shortage: What Parents Should Know

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Right now, parents all over the country are scrambling to feed their infants, due to a shortage of baby formula. The shortage, caused by pandemic-related supply chain issues and a Similac recall, has grocery shelves bare and people driving hours in search of formula.

Amidst the shortage, some might wonder ‘why not breastfeed?’ After all, breastfeeding has been shown to reduce illness and allergies in children—and also has health benefits for mothers. (It can reduce a mother’s risk of heart disease and stroke later in life, for example.) But fed is best—whether breast milk or formula—and there are a variety of reasons that prevent mothers from breastfeeding.

“Some mothers may have anatomical changes in the breast that can make it difficult to breastfeed,” says Alexandra Danko, CPNP, a pediatric nurse practitioner and lactation counselor at Henry Ford Health. “Or, if mothers are on medicine to manage a certain health condition, they may not be able to breastfeed, as the medication could compromise the safety of the breast milk. Some babies have problems latching and there could be a lack of education or support around breastfeeding. Some mothers may simply not produce enough milk.”

Also, once you stop breastfeeding, it’s difficult—if not impossible—to start again. “If it has been several months or even a few weeks, it is extremely challenging for lactation to restart,” says Danko. “You can see a lactation specialist, but if your milk supply has dried up, it likely won’t be possible for you to breastfeed.”  

So what should parents do during the formula shortage? Danko shares her advice. 

1. Switch to generic formula. “We recommend using any type of generic formula—it doesn’t have to be specific,” says Danko. “People have also been going to Canada to get formula, and we recommend that as well.” Check with your pediatrician, too, as they may have formula to give you. 

2. Use safe donor breast milk. Donor human milk banks offer breast milk to families in need, but because many milk banks are in short supply, parents are using social media to find a donor instead. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) this “informal milk sharing” presents potential health risks related to unscreened donors and milk that has not been tested for safety. A donor human milk bank minimizes these risks because donors go through lab screenings and milk is pasteurized to reduce levels of bacteria. “If you are taking part in informal milk sharing, make sure you’re taking the right precautions,” Danko says. For example:

  • Know your donor’s medical history and lifestyle to ensure the breastmilk is safe for your child.
  • Transport the breastmilk on ice so it doesn’t go bad.
  • Before feeding the milk to your child, use the Holder pasteurization method to sanitize it: heat it at 145 degrees on the stove for 30 minutes. Then bring it down to room temperature and refrigerate until you’re ready to use it. (Breast milk can also be stored frozen for up to six months.)

3. If you are in a pinch, use whole milk—but only in an emergency. “Years ago, cow’s milk was used to feed babies, but you should only use it if you can’t get formula or safe donor breast milk,” says Danko. “Around 11 months old is when we usually recommend transitioning to whole milk. The reason we don’t recommend whole milk before then is because too much cow’s milk can make it harder for the body to absorb iron, leading to iron-deficiency anemia.”

4. Do not make your own formula or dilute formula or breastmilk. “Diluting breast milk or formula can change the content and lead to medical concerns,” Danko says. “Your best options are generic formula and safe donor milk, and if there are instances when you can’t get either of those, straight whole milk. If you have any specific questions or concerns, reach out to your pediatrician.”

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To find a pediatrician at Henry Ford Health, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-436-7936.

Alexandra Danko, CPNP, is a pediatric nurse practitioner and lactation consultant at Henry Ford Health. She sees patients at Henry Ford Dearborn Medical Center.

Categories: ParentWell