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Guidance for parents looking for baby formula

As the baby formula shortage persists, an OHSU Doernbecher pediatrician offers ideas and information for parents
Closeup of infant's face, being held and fed from a bottle
Families in Oregon and across the country are grappling with a baby formula shortage crisis. (Getty Images)

Parents in Oregon and across the country are facing an unimaginable crisis — a supply shortage in formula to feed their babies.

This week, the Food and Drug Administration approved the reopening of a key factory that will resume manufacturing baby formula, and the federal government announced steps it would take to bolster supplies.

Meanwhile, Ben Hoffman, M.D., FAAP, professor of pediatrics in the Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine, and medical director of the OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital Tom Sargent Safety Center, offers some guidance for parents who are struggling to find baby formula.

“We need to acknowledge that this is a crisis, and there is no easy way out,” Hoffman says. “Above all, my advice is to rely on expert sources so you don’t put your baby’s health at risk. As a pediatrician, I feel the pain that the families are going through. It’s real and it’s awful — and we’ll get through it together.”

Some key guidance and resources for parents seeking formula:

 

1. Any brand of baby formula will work.

While babies may be accustomed to a certain brand, in a pinch, any formula purchased from an American producer should have the complete nutrition that the child needs.

“Think of it like cola,” Hoffman says. “You may have your favorite brand, but at the end of the day, it’s all the same. The same is true for formula produced in the U.S.”

That said, for babies with specific metabolic or nutritional needs — for example a cow’s milk intolerance or gastrointestinal issues — parents may need a special formula. The North American Society For Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology & Nutrition has a list of formulas the recipes for which are similar to each other and could potentially be interchangeable. Hoffman also recommends consulting with the baby’s pediatrician.

Hoffman cautions against substituting toddler formula, cow’s milk or plant-based milks for baby formula.

“Baby formula has been adjusted to be as close to breastmilk as possible,” Hoffman says. That means other forms of milk or formulas for older children lack nutrients that are essential for babies’ health.

In the same vein, watering down formula to stretch it or trying to make formula at home from a recipe won’t provide babies with enough nutrients.

“Babies need basic, complete nutrition,” Hoffman says. “As long as they’re getting that, they’re going to be great.”

 

2. Look beyond your usual grocery store.

If the grocery store’s shelves are empty of any baby formula, check corner stores or drugstores; since they’re not usually the go-to for formula, they may have more in stock than grocery stores.

Grocery stores’ and drugstores’ online shops may also have formula supplies, pulling from national rather than just local warehouses. Well-recognized stores are the safest bet to purchase legitimate baby formula, and Hoffman reminds families to purchase American-produced formula, which will have the nutrients that babies need.

For families who use the WIC Program, note that Oregon has waived any limitations over what type of formula it will cover. This allows families to purchase any formula that’s available, rather than being limited to a certain brand, size or form.

Local food banks and WIC Program offices may also have formula available. For special-needs babies, pediatricians may have advice on where to find formula, Hoffman says.

 

3. Work your network.

As the shortage has persisted, Hoffman highlights how parents have come together over social media to share resources and advice. There are groups dedicated to infant feeding and formula, and members may have ideas for where to find formula.

Families can use this collective, crowd-sourced knowledge to find sources of baby formula. Hoffman urges parents to run any advice from social media about substitutions or other alternative solutions by the baby’s pediatrician.

Ultimately, call your pediatrician if you can’t find the formula you need for your baby: “We may have samples in stock, or connections to local organizations, or ideas about places to call,” Hoffman says. “We’re in crisis mode right now, but we’ll work together to get to the other side, and make sure the babies in our community get the formula they need.”

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