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Pediatrician offers do's and don'ts during baby formula shortage

Parents and guardians across the country are struggling to find formula for their children, facing empty shelves and their children’s hungry bellies. Sanford Pediatrician Dr. Colleen Swank shares advice for parents during the ongoing formula shortage.

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The formula shelves at Walgreens are nearly empty on Sunday, May 22, 2022, in Bemidji, Minnesota.
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BEMIDJI, Minn. — With a 6-month-old baby and another on the way, Sarah Winkle didn’t expect so much of her stress to be caused by simply trying to find formula.

Since first noticing that there was less formula on the shelves around the time that her daughter was 4 months old, Winkle has had to devote more and more time to scouring store shelves just to find the food that her infant needs.

“I noticed that (formula) was getting harder and harder to find,” Winkle said. “That’s when I started having to go to numerous stores and making multiple trips throughout the week.”

It’s not unusual for the Bemidji woman to visit an average of four different stores in a week, each time looking for formula. She’s even taken to going to stores on her lunch break, just to increase her chances.

And Winkle isn’t alone in her hunt: Parents and guardians across the country are struggling to find formula for their children, facing empty shelves and their children’s hungry bellies.

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Sparked after Abbott Laboratories, the largest formula company in the U.S., issued a product recall and shut down a manufacturing plant over concerns of bacterial infections, the shortage has been going on for months with little action taken to alleviate it.

FILE PHOTO: Empty shelves show a shortage of baby formula in San Antonio
FILE PHOTO: Empty shelves show a shortage of baby formula at CVS in San Antonio, Texas, U.S. May 10, 2022.
KAYLEE GREENLEE BEAL/REUTERS

This has left it up to the childrens’ parents and guardians to go above and beyond to make sure that their children get the formula they need.

“It’s a hassle, it’s frustrating,” Winkle said. “That’s not even something you expect to have to worry about as a new mom.”

Other parents have taken to more desperate measures, attempting to make their own formula or watering down what they already have, both things that can be dangerous for small children.

“There’s been recommendations to do different things like make your own formula or dilute formula that you currently have for it to last longer,” said Dr. Colleen Swank, a board-certified pediatrician and vice president of Sanford Clinic in Bemidji. “These are not safe things to do.”

These dangerous recommendations, which have been spreading on social media, can lead to children being hospitalized, or worse.

Homemade formulas don’t have the right mix of nutrients for infants, according to Swank, and these recipes can also have other substances in them that can be harmful to the babies ingesting them.

Similarly, diluting a store-bought formula with water not only decreases the calories and nutrients in a serving but if an infant consumes too much water this way it can be toxic and potentially fatal.

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What can parents do?

Swank provided different suggestions for different situations and made it clear that parents can reach out to their pediatricians and doctors for help and for answers to any questions they might have.

“Keep looking at the stores for formula,” Swank said. “It might not be at your regular stores, you might have to look at smaller stores or look at grocery stores.”

She also added that when parents do find formula on the shelves, they should only take what is needed so that other parents and guardians can feed their children, too.

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The formula shelves at CVS are nearly empty on Sunday, May 22, 2022, in Bemidji.
Courtesy / Brady Laudon of

If parents can’t find their child’s usual formula, Swank said that if an infant is on a standard and nonspecialized formula, it should be OK to switch brands.

“Any of the brands that are sold in stores are FDA approved and are safe,” Swank said. “For children who are on regular, standard formula, it’s okay for them to switch brands.”

Not every child can switch brands, however. If a child has a medical issue that requires a specific diet or formula, Swank recommends calling a pediatrician or family medicine doctor to see if there are safe alternatives.

If parents and guardians are still struggling to find the formula they need, Swank also recommends reaching out to your health care provider to see if they can help.

For recipients of WIC, a program designed to help low-income families and their children, reaching out to one of the program’s representatives is also recommended.

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There are also some safe formula alternatives for older infants, but these should be used sparingly.

“For older infants, let’s say 10 to 11 months, for a few days you can use cow’s milk if they’re on a standard cow milk formula,” Swank said. “But you would not want them to receive more than 24 oz. of cow's milk a day.”

Swank specified that the best type of milk to use for that short-term solution is whole milk and that infants close to 1 year could also safely have formula meant for toddlers for a short period of time.

“The important thing is not watering down or making your own formula,” Swank said.

Parents anywhere within the Sanford Health system can call their physician, message them through My Sanford Chart or call the 24/7 My Sanford Nurse phone number, 800-821-5167 or 701-234-5000 if they have any questions.

Nicole Ronchetti is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer, focusing on local government and community health.
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