Baby formula shortage: What Seacoast parents need to know, from local experts
By: Karen Dandurant Fosters Daily Democrat
The nationwide shortage of infant formula has parents worried about how they will feed their babies. Seacoast New Hampshire doctors and parenting experts weighed in this week, raising safety concerns about recipes for making your own formula and buying products online from non-reputable sources.
The experts say scams are rampant right now, too.
Riona Corr, director of Women Infant and Children services at Goodwin Community Health in Strafford County, noted the nationwide shortage began after a recall of Similac brand formula following an FDA inspection at Abbott Nutrition’s Sturgis, Michigan, plant, which was forced to halt production.
An agreement between the FDA and Abbott is expected to allow production to begin in a couple weeks, but the problem is not going to be solved immediately.
“When it happened, people began buying Enfamil formula, which was good,” Corr said, referring to another well-known brand. “But now, the shortage is outrageous. I work in Strafford and Carroll counties, and I (work with) over 600 families with children under 1 year. I have been looking for places to buy formula and have found some in Walmart and Target, but it is their regular formula and none of the specialty formulas needed by parents of babies with allergies, or who have other sensitivities that require specific types of formula.”
Corr said she sees the formula shortage as a public health emergency.
“The USDA issued waivers for 48 brands of formula,” Corr said. “They heard our cry and are reaching out to help. If parents don’t know, food stamps can be used to buy baby formula.”
Dangers for parents to avoid
Some parents who are desperate to find ways to feed babies are searching for formula on social media, such as Facebook and Instagram, or considering recipes posted for making formula at home.
“This is so dangerous,” Corr said. “Doctors are seeing babies with stomach ulcers. Parents are watering down formula, trying to make it last longer and babies are not getting what they need. They are adding Karo syrup to regular milk causing issues like dehydration, bleeding.”
Dr. Christopher Rouse, medical director of newborn medicine services at Wentworth-Douglass Hospital in Dover, added, “The concern is not only the proper amount of calories if people try to make their own. Calories are important for a baby’s development, but also the FDA regulates formula, assuring the proper amount of sodium, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, and iron. That would be hard to recreate.”
Rouse said insufficient sodium can lead to cerebral edema (brain swelling). Too much potassium can lead to cardiac anomalies.
“Formula is produced under sterile conditions,” Rouse said. “That is hard to recreate at home. I would caution against using whole milk. Milk can be used with older children but for children under six months, the risk is higher and it does not have any iron in it. Iron is important in the creation of red blood cells and babies need it. Without it, they might become anemic, their hemoglobin is lower and that can affect development.”
Corr said moms having difficulty finding formula should talk to their primary care doctor, or should contact agencies such as WIC.
“There are organic formulas and also other brand names that can be substituted for the brand names,” Corr said. “People are stuck on the brand, but there are alternatives. Your doctor can help you choose.”
Corr said parents should not buy breast milk from a stranger.
“There is no way to know if the source mom is on medication, a substance user, or if they have a disease like hepatitis that can pass through their breast milk,” Corr said. “People are selling breast milk on Facebook. There is no way to assure safety.”
What should parents do
Rouse said he understands how challenging the formula shortage is for parents. He said Wentworth-Douglass has has been working with its vendors and so far has sufficient supplies for patients.
Rouse said he has been advising pregnant patients in the third trimester to begin thinking about the shortage and take steps to stock up.
“I highly recommend they discuss this with their doctor to see what options they have,” Rouse said. “There are brands and products that are much safer than going the route of seeking help from a website, or trying to make your own.”
Corr said some moms are attempting to relactate, which is restarting breastfeeding after stopping.
“For some moms, this will work,” Corr said. “They should work with a lactation consultant who might be able to help.”
Dr. Jennifer Jones, a pediatrician with Core Physicians, shared recommendations, too.
“We are encouraging families to use store brand formulas (like Target and Walmart brands) that are similar to their usual formula,” Jones said. “We are also advising that babies who are old enough are offered more baby foods and baby yogurt. It is really important that parents don’t dilute formula to make it last longer – this can cause nutritional and electrolyte problems. Babies over 6 months of age can be given cow’s milk for a short time in an emergency situation, but this is not a safe long-term option. Parents whose infants are on special formulas for food allergies or medical problems should check with their pediatrician.”
Dr. Susanne E. Tanski of Dartmouth Health Children’s said “one of the most important things to know is that other brands of formula than what a family usually purchases are perfectly safe and suitable, including generic store brands,” adding, “If a specialized prescription formula is needed, your pediatrician can help with obtaining it. Nearly all store brands are manufactured by the same company and just labeled for the individual store. So any of the store brands are identical and interchangeable by type, for example, by regular, gentle, soy, sensitive or hypoallergenic. The quality and safety standards are strict, so these are safe and comparable to the brand name versions.”
Resources for parents
Corr said the New England Milk Bank is a safe source of pasteurized breast milk. She said they ask for a doctor’s note and there is a cost, but it is safer than trying to find breast milk on your own or making your own formula.
Jones pointed to advice from the American Academy of Pediatrics on what to do about the baby formula shortage in the list of articles at healthychildren.org/English/tips-tools/ask-the-pediatrician.
Families seeking a substitute formula are also advised to visit storebrandformula.com/abbottrecall/alternatives.aspx to identify options.
New Hampshire Attorney General John Formella pointed parents to pediatricians for advice and noted his office is monitoring the impact of the shortage and watching out for scams.
“If families have excess unopened, unexpired formula, please consider donating it to your local food pantry to help families in need,” Formella said. “We would advise consumers to only buy as much formula as they need, as unnecessarily stocking up may intensify the shortage.”
Families are cautioned against ordering baby formula from any untrusted or unfamiliar online sources and should thoroughly research any online retailers that claim to be offering formula for sale via the Better Business Bureau.
What scams to look out for
- An unknown seller who posts an ad or social media comment claiming to have available baby formula, then responds to interested consumers with a message showing photos of formula, but never ends up sending formula after a payment is made.
- An online seller with no sign of a brick-and-mortar business address, or who posts an address that appears on online maps as a parking lot, residence, or unrelated business.
- Misspellings, grammatical errors, or other descriptive language inconsistent with the product in their messaging.
- Conduct an online search with the company name and the word “scam.”
- Take a screenshot of the website/phone number information when an order is placed, as well as of the item ordered, in case the website or number disappears.
- Credit cards can often provide more protection against fraud than other payment methods.