How Kind Strangers are Helping Parents During the Baby Formula Shortage

Skylar Coy couldn’t find her baby’s formula anywhere. Because five-month-old Josie was born prematurely and has severe reflux, she uses the special amino-acid formula Neocate Syneo. Even in normal times, this formula usually isn’t stocked in stores—parents order it online or through a pharmacy. When Josie was running low, Coy searched and searched for it, but all she could find were “out of stock” notices. Her daughter’s pediatrician passed along the few cans the office had left. When they ran out, Coy tried six or seven other brands. “Josie didn’t tolerate any of them,” recalls Coy, who lives near Chicago. “She started losing weight. At five months old, she weighed less than 10 pounds.”

Coy posted about her struggle on her TikTok page, and an amazing thing happened: A mom in Indianapolis messaged her and offered to send the Neocate Syneo she had left from her son, who no longer needed it. Thirty-six cans arrived in the mail. “I have cried about it so many times,” says Coy. “It feels like she saved my daughter’s life.” But the goodwill didn’t end there: In the video’s comments, other moms started posting about what brands they have been unable to find and people jumped in to help them too. And Skylar herself is paying it forward by helping friends find formula for their kiddos.

In February, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration shut down the formula-making Abbott Nutrition facility in Sturgis, Michigan because of potential bacterial infections. It recalled three brands of formulas and left dozens of others in short supply. As the country’s baby formula shortage looms nationwide—it’s estimated that 43 percent of the top-selling infant formula is out of stock as a result of a formula factory shutdown, causing supply chain shortages and recalls—kind-hearted people across the country are becoming formula matchmakers. They’re posting requests on behalf of friends, stalking store shelves to see what’s available, offering to look at stores for total strangers, and shipping or dropping off the precious goods.

Andy Creighton, a speech therapist in New Haven, Connecticut, appealed to her friends and family when her colleague, Amy Gennaro, a special-education teacher, couldn’t locate formula for her 8-month-old. “Amy was down to her last can when I posted on Facebook,” says Creighton. “Just a few hours later, my aunt in Canada went to the grocery store, found what Amy needs, and is sending it!”

When Melia Rose Fletcher from Red Cliff, Wisconsin, posted a comment on a story about the formula shortage, a mom from a nearby town gave her three cans of Similac Sensitive. Another one, Erika Baltazar from St. Paul, Minnesota, ordered Rose a can from Amazon. Even though it hasn’t arrived yet, the gesture is much appreciated, Rose says. “It makes me happy that people want to help others.”

Danielle Eastwood of Fort Gratiot, Michigan, posted on Facebook that she had some extra cans of formula to give away, and mutual friends began tagging Jennifer Geister Ward, who had posted on her page that she was getting desperate. Her 23-year-old son, who has special needs, relies on a specialized formula because of a genetic digestive condition. Ward told Eastwood that the brands she had wouldn’t help her son, but that wasn’t the end of it. “Danielle called her parents’ neighbor because she thought he might have some,” says Ward. Sure enough, he did and Eastwood picked it up and dropped it off on Ward’s porch. The two still haven’t met in person. “That complete strangers went out of their way to help is something I’ll never forget,” she says.

“That complete strangers went out of their way to help is something I’ll never forget.

Laurie Citino of Philadelphia is another one of the helpers. Although not a mom, she was inspired to do something. She posted on her Facebook page: “If anyone has a formula-fed baby and is running up against supply issues and purchase limits, I will help you out.” A few moms have her on standby, and another asked her to look for a specialty formula for her infant.

While it was announced this week that the plant will soon be able to restart production, relief won’t happen immediately. Speaking on behalf of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), Steven Abrams, M.D, said he expects shortages to be a problem throughout the summer. So we all have to be on the lookout for ways to help searching moms, including passing on this advice from Dr. Abrams and other pediatricians on how to make it through the next few months.

If You Have a Healthy Baby Who Uses Cow’s Milk-Based Formulas:

Be open to trying another brand. “Substituting one brand of formula for another is easiest when dealing with healthy-term newborns as there are many options available,” says Heidi Karpen, M.D., a neonatologist at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and associate professor of pediatrics at Emory University. “Although some parents feel like their baby does better on one brand versus another, the reality is that the composition of these formulas is very similar.” The USDA’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is temporarily allowing formula substitutions. There are also other formula brands parents can try, like ByHeart, which is non GMO and made with organic grass-fed whole milk.

Search in the wee hours. If there’s nothing at all on the shelf where you usually shop, try smaller supermarkets and look online during off hours. “I searched online for my son’s formula for nine days before I found it on WalMart.com at 2:45 a.m.,” says Kala Schroer from Hays, Kansas. You might also want to ask workers at local stores if there’s a specific time that they put out new shipments. For instance, if a store tends to re-stock overnight, being there (or asking a friend to go) when it opens may make it more likely to find something.

Listen to expert guidance on alternatives. The AAP has recently added some flexibility to its guidance for babies ages six months and older who are already eating a variety of solids. Dr. Abrams, a professor of pediatrics at Dell Medical School in Austin, Texas, says these babies can have up to 24 ounces of whole cow’s milk daily unless they have a dairy allergy.

If you need to fill your baby’s bottle with whole milk for more than a few days, talk to your pediatrician about starting the baby on an iron supplement, he advises. (Formulas, but not cow’s milk, are fortified with iron, which babies need for growth and development.)

Unfortunately, the homemade formula recipes that are circulating online are “not optimal in any circumstance and can be downright dangerous in some circumstances,” says Dr. Abrams. Not only is infection a concern because they’re not being made in a sterile environment, but they may also have too much protein and phosphorus for some babies. “Most babies will tolerate the protein and phosphorus, but some will not, which is why formulas were invented in the first place,” he says.

If Your Baby Needs a Hypoallergenic or Specialized Formula:

Talk to your pediatrician. You don’t have as many options as parents whose babies use regular cow’s-milk formula, but there may be alternatives. Check to see what your pediatrician recommends. Steph Wade of Coon Rapids, Minnesota, started her son, Paxton, on Alimentum, a popular hypoallergenic formula, because he spit up frequently. When it was recalled in February, she switched to Enfamil Nutramigen without much of an issue. But when she couldn’t find the Nutramigen, she tried a store brand version. Paxton, now 4 months old, “didn’t tolerate that brand at all.” Wade says she felt like she won the lottery when her friend’s mom found a bunch of Nutramigen while she was on a work trip and bought it for her. “She went to three different stores for me. I’m really grateful.”

If you can’t find the original formula or the alternative, alert your pediatrician. “We often have samples of specialized formulas in our offices,” says Katie Lockwood, M.D., a primary-care pediatrician at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “And if we don’t have any currently, we can sometimes help locate it from the formula companies.”

Check with charitable organizations in your area. The Kindness Project, a charity near Allentown, Pennsylvania, keeps a variety of formulas on hand for the foster families it supports. “We happened to have a specific kind that one of our foster moms needed for a baby who had been in the NICU,” says Janae T. Holtzhafer, founder and executive director. “She was almost in tears when we gave it to her.”

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