Low on formula? Here’s what to do

SEATTLE — Recalls, supply-chain issues and labor shortages have many parents and caregivers struggling to find baby formula. A nationwide shortage has led some retailers and grocery stores to limit purchases and go as far as placing inventory behind the counter.

The worsening shortage is particularly acute for shoppers in Washington metro areas, according to retail software company Datasembly, which said about 31% of formula products were out of stock across the country as of last month.

Seeing empty shelves, people may panic and seek out alternative methods, including recipes for homemade formula and buying products from strangers online, said Eliza Lagerquist, a neonatal dietitian with the University of Washington Medical Center.

But Lagerquist and other experts caution parents and caregivers to be careful, seek community resources and follow advice from their pediatricians.

“Nutrition is a core building block of growth and development and we as your pediatricians are happy to help you navigate this challenging time,” said Dr. Dale Lee, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Seattle Children’s Hospital. “It is important that families realize that they are not in this difficult time alone.”

Here’s what to know if you can’t find baby formula at stores.

Lee encourages families to contact their pediatricians for advice on switching brands or seeking substitutions if they can’t find the preferred brand. Guidance is especially important, he said, if a child is on a more specialized formula, as finding substitutions may be more complex.

In particular, Lee said, formulas with broken-down proteins, or that are amino-acid based, may be used in some situations and need to be carefully substituted.

Many local food banks have infant formulas, he said, and your pediatrician’s office or dietitian may have “unique resources” as well.

Not all formula alternatives are safe

Infant formula is highly regulated and specially formulated to be a safe substitute for breast milk with proper ratios of protein, fat and carbohydrates, said Lagerquist.

Toddler formula: Formulated to meet the needs of children over a year old, toddler formula doesn’t meet the needs of infants.

Homemade formula: The “endless” online recipes to make formula at home are unregulated and pose too many potential risks for infants to consume, according to Lagerquist. “We can’t just mix our own things together in the kitchen,” she said. More information is at left.

Cow’s milk: It isn’t easily digested by babies until age 1. Milk doesn’t contain enough iron, which is critical for babies’ growth and development at the infant stage. Cow’s milk may also put your child at risk for intestinal bleeding before they turn 1, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nut milk: With low caloric density and not formulated to be “nutritionally complete,” nut milk can result in nutritional deficiencies, said Lee.

Diluting formula: Trying to dilute formula to make it last longer can be harmful because it reduces the nutrients a baby gets and can lead to malnutrition and poor weight gain, Lagerquist said.

Order directly from manufacturer

You also can check the manufactures’ website for a store locator, then call ahead to make sure the product is in stock.

Lagerquist recommends parents and caregivers check the Washington State Department of Health’s Women, Infant and Children website — st.news/WICInfantFormula — for suggested formula alternatives if their local store is out of their preferred brand. The site also features a locator tool to identify if the item is in stock.

Check food banks and agencies

DOH’s WIC nutrition program can help pregnant women, new and breastfeeding moms, and children younghter than 5 get food and other resources. Eligibility depends on household size and income.

Also eligible are caregivers for children and foster children younger than 5 and pregnant teens. If you or your family member are on Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or Basic Food you also may be eligible for WIC.

There are more than 200 WIC clinics statewide. To find a WIC clinic, call the Help Me Grow WA Hotline (800) 322-2588, or text “WIC” to 96859.

If breastfeeding isn’t an option, you can buy safe, pasteurized breast milk from donors at milk banks. The Northwest Mothers Milk Bank tests milk donated at partner hospitals in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. Those interested in donating breastmilk can call the Northwest Mothers Milk Bank at (503) 469-0955 or visit nwmmb.org for more information.

Don’t share breast milk or buy directly from donors

Breast milk sharing has risen in popularity, according to Lee, who doesn’t recommend informal breast milk sharing. Whether it is between friends, communities or acquired through the internet, there are potential risks if milk isn’t screened for illnesses or medications. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Human Milk Banking Association of North America discourage the practice as well and recommend consulting a health care provider first or using milk that has been tested.

Check formula for recalls

If you get your hands on formula, check that it wasn’t recalled for possible Cronobacter contamination by looking at the product code or entering the lot code on the Abbott website: similacrecall.com or call (800) 986-8540.

Similac PM 60/40 powdered formula: Lot # 27032K80 (can) and Lot # 27032K800 (case) were recalled on Feb. 28.

Similac, Alimentum and EleCare powdered formula: Recalled on Feb. 17 and should be discarded if you see all three of these:

First two digits of the stamped code are 22 through 37, and

The code contains “K8,” “SH,” or “Z2,” and

Use-by date is 4-1-2022 (APR 2022) or later.

Contact a health care provider if your baby has symptoms of illness from Cronobacter — a bacteria — which include fever, poor feeding, excessive crying or very low energy, according to the CDC. Some infants may also have seizures.

For a full list of recalled products visit the FDA’s consumer advisory page: st.news/FDAFormulaRecall.

Once you’ve checked that your formula is safe, be sure to use it before the “Use By” date and store safely.

Use formula within two hours of preparation and within one hour from when feeding begins. If not used within two hours, immediately store it in the fridge and use within 24 hours, according to the CDC.

Throw out formula left in the bottle after feeding. Store unopened formula containers in a cool, dry place indoors with lid tightly closed. Do not store it in the refrigerator. Most infant formula needs to be used within one month after the container is opened.

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