Parents in the US struggle to find baby food, driving for hours to local stores and scouring shelves for food for their children.
Millions of babies rely on formula and over 40% of the most popular brands areaccording to an analysis of Datasembly’s grocery inventory.
For parents who can’t get their hands on their baby’s usual formula products, pediatricians and maternal health experts have some advice on dos and don’ts.†
Try whole cow’s milk
For most babies who have no special needs and are six months or older, whole cow’s milk is a safe alternative to formula, as long as it’s only used as a replacement for a short time, according to Dr. Steven Abrams, a professor of pediatrics at the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin.
“But for babies under six months old, it’s a real problem, especially in the first few months. Whole cow’s milk isn’t a good alternative, nor are modified cow’s milk formulas,” said Dr. Abrams to CBS MoneyWatch.
Look for samples at your pediatrician’s office
Most pediatrician offices stock formula samples that parents can hold off for a short period of time until stores can restock. Also ask your pediatrician about European formulas that may be similar to a product temporarily unavailable in the US
Buy store brand products
Consider switching to store-brand baby food products.
“Unless a baby is fed special formula, most of the ingredients are similar,” said Jackee Haak, a lactation consultant who sits on the board of directors for the United States Lactation Consultant Association. “For the regular formula, switching brands isn’t as scary as people used to think, so there are opportunities for that too.”
Breastfeed if you can
Parents considering breastfeeding should contact a lactation consultant if their baby is currently dependent on a formula diet. Most insurers also cover the cost of buying a breast pump.
“You can pump and bottle feed if you don’t want to latch on” [the] baby. That could be a short-term choice a parent makes until this changes,” Haak said.
Not everyone can breastfeed, Haak noted. “It’s a misconception that anyone can breastfeed. Barriers make that challenging.”
Contact breast milk banks
The Human Milk Banking Association of North America, made up of 30 non-profit milk banks in the US and Canada, is urging more women to donate their own breast milk, which is distributed to local milk banks and pharmacies and made available to parents in emergency.
Parents seeking donated breast milk for their babies can usually get a prescription from their pediatrician.
“Milk banks receive donations, they process it and do a lot of testing and pasteurize it, then they freeze it and they can distribute it,” said Natalia Summerville, a breast milk and formula feeding expert and lecturer at Duke University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “A lot of that goes to NICUs, but if they have a surplus, they expand it to donate it to pharmacies.”
She added: “It’s similar to blood donations. Mothers pump milk and donate it and do a fantastic job distributing it.”
Start by consulting your pediatrician and asking for a prescription if donated breast milk is considered appropriate for your child. If so, contact your local breast milk bank and ask if they have any excess milk available. Usually it is provided free of charge to families who need it.
“Many mothers who have more than enough milk to feed their own babies and have a surplus are willing to contribute it for social welfare,” Summerville said.
Connect on social media
Look for support groups on social media websites like Facebook that are committed to helping parents find formulas through crowdsourcing.
“There are offers in various places,” says Haak. “Some people find supply and there’s a lot of sharing. I’ve seen people post things like, ‘I’m in this area, this is what I see, does anyone want me to buy this for them?’ †
Jennifer Kersey, 36, of Cheshire, Connecticut, said she had her last can of formula milk for her 7-month-old son when someone saw her post on a Facebook group and got her some sample cans.
She told The Associated Press that she “just started reaching people, ‘Hey do you have this formula?'”
It’s a collective effort. Group members who find formula in stock help get it to moms in need.
“If someone offers me up and says, ‘I have these three,’ I say, ‘I’ll take the purple can and put the other one on that website,’ Kersey said.
Do not dilute formula
“Of course we don’t want parents to dilute their formula too much. It’s definitely better to use cow’s milk than to dilute too much,” said Dr. Abrams of UT Austin. Diluting formula is “basically the same as giving the baby extra water. All it does is fill their stomachs – it doesn’t really provide them with nutrition. It does nothing to strengthen the baby, and is the same as using juices,” he said.
“If you dilute the formula, it changes the baby’s electrolytes and can throw them off balance. They’re not getting the nutrients and calories they need and it’s really not recommended,” added Haak, the lactation consultant.
Don’t take it home either
“We can’t recommend using homemade formulas or anything like that — it’s just dangerous, especially in the first few months of a baby,” said Dr. Abrams.
“Formula is really designed and enriched with all the things that the baby might need. Lots of recipes [are] floating around from what my grandparents had to do, but that’s definitely not recommended. There is a lot of damage to be done,” Haak said.
—The Associated Press contributed to this report