WASHINGTON (AP) — Many parents are looking to infant formula for a combination of short- and long-term concerns hit most of the biggest US brands.
Millions of babies in the US rely on infant formula, which is the only source of nutrition recommended for infants who are not exclusively breastfed.
Here’s a look at what’s behind the problem and what parents can do:
WHY IS THERE A DEFICIENCY?
Ongoing supply disruptions have combined with a recent safety recall to squeeze supplies.
The troubles began last year when the COVID-19 pandemic caused disruptions to labor, transportation and raw materials — economy-wide problems that didn’t spare the formula industry. Stock has been further pressured by parental stockpiling during the COVID-19 lockdowns.
Then, in February, Abbott Nutrition recalled several major brands of powdered formula and closed its Sturgis, Michigan factory when federal officials began examining four babies who developed bacterial infections after consuming formula from the facility.
Abbott is one of just a handful of companies that produce the vast majority of the U.S. formula line, so its recall wiped out a large segment of the market.
WHAT’S IN BABY FOOD?
Most formulas are made from cow’s milk protein that has been modified to be easier to digest and fortified with additional nutrients needed for growth and development. The Food and Drug Administration sets specific dietary requirements, including minimum amounts of protein, fat, calcium, and a number of vitamins. Formula makers achieve these levels by adding various sugars, oils, and minerals.
The formulas are designed to mimic breast milk, although studies have repeatedly shown better health outcomes for breastfed babies.
WHY CAN’T ALL MOTHERS RELY ON Breast MILK?
Health experts recommend exclusively breastfeeding babies up to 6 months of age. However, federal figures show that only 1 in 4 of those ages rely solely on breast milk.
Mothers face a number of challenges with long-term breastfeeding, including returning to work and acquiring the time and equipment needed to express breast milk. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 60% of mothers stop breastfeeding earlier than planned.
State and federal laws have been enacted to encourage breastfeeding by encouraging them to do so Break times and shelters for mothers of young children.
Breastfeeding rates were consistently lower among black babies than other groups. About three-quarters of black babies are breastfed during infancy, according to the CDC, which is below the national average of 84%.
WHAT SHOULD PARENTS DO IF THEY HAVE DIFFICULTY FIND FOOD?
Talk to your pediatrician or call a local helpline to see if they can help you find some options. Experts also recommend checking with smaller stores and pharmacies, which may still have supplies when larger stores run out.
Most regular baby formulas contain the same basic ingredients and nutrients, so parents shouldn’t hesitate to buy another brand if they’re having trouble finding their regular one.
Some infants require special formulas because of allergies, digestive problems, and other medical conditions. Parents should speak to their doctor if they cannot find these products, which manufacturers typically sell through pharmacies and clinics.
Families who qualify for WIC — a federal program similar to food stamps that serves mothers and children — can also contact their local agency.
Health officials are also warning against buying formulas through social media sites or outside of conventional retailers as they could be counterfeit.
WHY ARE PARENTS TOLD NOT TO USE OUR OWN FOOD RECIPES ONLINE?
Many do-it-yourself formula recipes are made with cow’s milk and granulated sugar, which can be difficult for small babies to digest. They also lack the specific vitamins and proteins found in breast milk and FDA-approved formulas needed for basic nutrition.
“Especially for young babies, many of these formulas and blends that can be found online don’t even contain the most basic nutrient blends that babies need to survive,” said Dr. Steven Abrams, pediatrician at the University of Texas, Austin.
Abrams also emphasized that parents should never dilute infant formula.
WHEN WILL SERVICE LIKELY TO IMPROVE?
Health officials recently announced several moves to boost supply, including the ability to import the foreign-made formula more quickly.
The FDA is working with Abbott to resolve the violations that led to the closure of its Michigan facility, which manufactures Similac, EleCare and several other leading powder formulations.
The Chicago-based company said this week that it could resume production at its plant within two weeks, subject to FDA approval. After that, it would take another six to eight weeks for new products to hit store shelves.
The company says its products have not been directly linked to bacterial infections in children, pointing out that genetic samples collected at its factory did not match those found in several sick infants.
But even then, experts warn that many of the industry-wide issues will continue to constrain shipments.
“That’s going to be a problem and it’s not going to go away for at least a period of several months,” Abrams said.
Follow Matthew Perrone on Twitter: @AP_FDAwriter
The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.