Moms speak out about struggling to find formula amid 'scary' national shortage: 'We pray a lot'

·9-min read
A woman shops for baby formula at Target in Maryland on May 16 amid widespread shortages. (Photo: Jim WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)
A woman shops for baby formula at Target in Maryland on May 16 amid widespread shortages. (Photo: Jim WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

The nationwide formula shortage is repeatedly grabbing headlines, and with good reason: Baby formula is increasingly hard to find on shelves and online.

Retail pricing analysis company Datasembly published a report in April that found that between 2% to 8% of baby formulas were out of stock in the first part of 2021, a rate that shockingly jumped up to 31% recently. Certain areas have been hit particularly hard by formula shortages, including Des Moines, Iowa; Minneapolis, Minn.; and San Antonio, Texas, where at least 50% of baby formulas are out of stock, per the report. And things have seemingly gotten worse since the data was published.

What's behind the shortage? In addition to pandemic-related supply chain issues, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a recall in February of certain lots of popular powdered baby formulas over concerns of contamination with Cronobacter, a bacterium that can cause severe foodborne illness. Impacted brands including formulas marketed under the Similac, Alimentum, EleCare and Similac PM 60/40 names. These formulas were manufactured at a plant in Michigan run by Abbott Nutrition, which has been shut down. To date, two babies have died from infections that are believed to be related to the contamination, per the FDA.

Other formula manufacturers have not been able to keep up with the demand. And, due to the recall, parents of the impacted formulas have turned to other formulas, causing a shortage of many brands.

Pediatricians have recommended that parents look for new options that are similar to their baby's formula, whenever possible. "In most cases, parents can switch formula brands and babies will adjust to the new formula within a few days," Dr. Tanya Altmann, a pediatrician based in Los Angeles, tells Yahoo Life. But, she says, things become trickier with babies who have allergies or sensitivities. "If your baby has a specific food allergy or sensitivity, it's important to talk to your pediatrician about appropriate alternatives," Altmann says. "It's the most challenging where babies have a lot of allergies. Choices are more limited."

A number of parents are speaking out to voice their frustration about the situation, with some revealing just how hard it's been to find their baby's go-to formula and brand. The crisis has put particular strain on parents who use food stamps that limit what brands and package sizes can be purchased, also well as those for whom breastfeeding is not an option, including adoptive parents, those who have welcomed infants via surrogacy and parents of infants with allergies or other dietary restrictions.

Anna Kraft, an Atlanta-based mom of two, has repeatedly expressed her frustration on Instagram about not being able to find formula. Kraft's 10-month-old son Hank was on Similac Alimentum and needed to switch to Enfamil Nutramigen once his original formula was recalled. Hank has "really bad reflux" and a milk protein sensitivity, and stopped tolerating breast milk when he was 4 months old, Kraft tells Yahoo Life. "It was almost like a switch flipped," she says. "He would scream and wiggle, do two or three sucks, and then scream and wiggle again."

Kraft says she went on a restrictive diet, but Hank lost a lot of weight in a short period of time and just didn't want to nurse. "It was really scary," she says. Her pediatrician recommended that Kraft supplement her breastfeeding with formula and eventually Hank went on an all-formula diet. "He was never happy breastfeeding," Kraft says. "He was much happier when we gave him a bottle of formula."

Kraft says she and her husband first brought up concerns about the formula shortage to Hank's pediatrician back in January after they struggled to find enough Alimentum. "This is not a new problem but it's definitely gotten much worse," she says. "We're at crisis level."

Kraft, who is down to her last canister of Nutramigen, says that she and her husband regularly "drive around to different stores" to try to find more formula. "Any time my husband travels for work, he checks local Targets and Walmarts to see if he can find any," she says. Kraft has also started reaching out to friends and family across the country for help. "We're waiting on four shipments of formula from four different family members across different states," she says.

Formula hasn't just been hard to find — it's gotten more expensive. The average cost of formula is up 18% from what is was last year, according to CBS News. Kraft, who is a former teacher and stay-at-home mom, just started a remote job as an ESL teacher that requires her to teach classes starting at 4 a.m. to try to help with the added cost. "I took on this ESL teaching job largely in part because of the rising cost of everything, most notably formula, especially because we have to put out a lot of money for it when we can find it," she says.

Kraft says the entire experience has been stressful. "We worry every day," she says. "I never could have predicted that I would have to worry about feeding my infant in the U.S. We pray a lot."

Mom Kayzie Weedman has also been vocal on TikTok about her struggle finding a specific formula for her daughter, who has a "huge" cow's milk allergy. In one video that's been viewed more than 1.5 million times, Weedman shared that her daughter develops a severe rash when she has formula made with cow's milk. "So, what am I going to do when I go to the shelves and can't get the formula that I need?" she says in the video. "The pharmacist who fills her prescription formula can't fill it because they can't get it — it's back-ordered six months and I just have to sit there and stare at empty shelves and not know what I'm going to do next."

Gillian Entin, a mom of 9-month-old twins who lives in Los Angeles, tells Yahoo Life that her daughters started on formula "immediately after birth" because they were born premature and her breast milk didn't come in quickly enough. "They needed the extra nutrition," she says. "They've never been on anything but formula."

Entin's daughters have a "pretty bad cow's milk allergy" and need to be on hypoallergenic formula as a result, she says. "There aren't a whole lot of alternatives to their formula," she adds.

When Entin started having trouble finding the formula, she and her husband "drove around the city to 50 different stores getting everything we possibly could, which wasn't a lot," she says, adding, "we had family in other stores looking for it, too." Entin says "it's pretty scary" to have babies on a specific diet and "not knowing if you're going to be able to give them what they need to be healthy."

Entin says she had to switch from a powdered form of formula to a liquid version, which is "a little different" in terms of ingredients. "I'm just thankful we've been able to find enough," she says.

Kansas City-area mom Micala Quinn had her fifth baby on May 4 and tells Yahoo Life that, while she had heard about the formula shortage, she "did not fully realize how dire the situation was" until she needed to find formula for her son. Quinn says she was planning to breastfeed, "but my milk is taking its sweet time coming in." So, she says, she's supplementing with formula.

Quinn says her discharge nurse at the hospital mentioned the shortage and "was able to sneak me a few extra samples to go home with to buy some time while we began the search for formula." Quinn also sent her mom and husband on the hunt for formula, noting that "all we could find were these large milk jugs of pre-mixed liquid baby formula. There was absolutely no powder formula available" in the brand she uses for her baby.

"Having a new baby is stressful enough, but [adding] on a formula shortage where there are no real answers or solutions takes it to a whole new level," Quinn says. "I find myself constantly obsessing over, 'Is my son getting enough? Will we be able to find formula when we run out? What if we can't — what will we do?'"

Quinn says she wishes she was "more prepared" for the shortage before she was faced with it. "In the hospital, the second I knew supply was low and slow to come in, I would have started taking all the supplements, eating all the lactation cookies and drinking all the lactation teas," she says.

Quinn says she's coped with the stress of the shortage by talking about it on Instagram. "Connecting with other moms navigating this as well has been very helpful," she says. "Other than, that [I'm] just trying my best to stay hydrated and do what I can to increase my supply so my son can be fed."

Entin says she's hoping to wean her daughters "as soon as possible," noting that their allergies and the formula shortage both play a role in that. "We have their 9-month checkup coming up at the pediatrician's office and it's something we're going to talk about," she says.

Kraft urges parents to support each other during this time and to be cautious about not buying more formula than they need. "We're trying to find a fine line between making sure that our son gets what he needs to eat while also not taking food from other babies," she says.

Kraft says she's been baffled by all of the people who suggest that parents of formula-fed babies "just breastfeed" their children. "There are a lot of people out there that seem to be blaming parents for this," she says. "This seems to be one more thing put on the backs of mothers."

Kraft also encourages parents of formula-fed babies to reach out to friends, family members and local mom groups for help. "I feel like our only recourse is parents helping other parents," she says. "This is a situation where we have to understand that these are all our babies. We need to work together to help."

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