Editor’s note: This article first appeared in The Charlotte Observer.
Nurses kept raising the same urgent questions while I was on call with my pediatric clinic last week. "New parents are driving around in a panic," they told me. "They've been to seven stores trying to find formula for their child. What can I tell them? What can we do?"
Even if you don’t have an infant, you’re probably aware the U.S. is facing an unprecedented shortage of infant formula. It’s a terrifying moment for parents and caregivers of our littlest patients. As a physician and a mother, I’ve been heartbroken to see what parents are going through. They need our community’s compassion and support. Sharing good information with them can help, too.
I never imagined, in all my years of practice, that a nation as wealthy as the U.S. would have to contend with a lack of enough formula for infants. How did we get here?
The supply chain issues affecting many industries are one culprit. Then the U.S. Food and Drug Administration closed Abbott Nutrition plant in February due to suspected bacterial contamination, and Abbot issued a voluntary recall of several powder formulas. The closure shows what can happen when only a few companies make this essential product.
Many lower-income families have always worried about how to feed their children. Now, more parents are discovering what food insecurity feels like. The main jobs of a parent are to feed, clothe, shelter and love their child. When you can’t do one of those things, it stirs deep anxiety about your competence as a parent. Add in hormonal changes and lack of sleep, and you have a perfect storm.
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Infants receive nourishment solely through breastfeeding, formula or a combination, from birth to six months. Even after parents start to introduce solid food, infants still receive most nutrients from formula or breast milk through their first year.
One might assume parents struggling to find formula could simply switch to breastfeeding. Most medical institutions, including my own, recommend breast milk as best for a baby’s growth and development. But breastfeeding is not easy. I have conversations with families every day about why it's difficult to nurse.
Chronic illness, difficult delivery of the baby, and postpartum depression can all inhibit the process. Some moms try but breastfeeding simply doesn’t work. Others may not produce enough milk, or their supply might decrease over time. A mom who hasn’t breastfed for months can’t decide she’s going to start now and hope to be successful.
I can offer some reassurance to parents. All formula currently produced in the U.S. is excellent. This is not the time to worry about brand. Formulas are very similar, except for those made for babies with milk protein allergies. If you can’t find your regular brand, it’s fine to use another. Any differences the baby experiences in digestion will typically be mild and not medically problematic.
There is reason for optimism. I’m encouraged President Biden has invoked the Defense Production Act. It mandates that suppliers sell essential ingredients to infant formula companies first, rather than to other customers. I like the idea of the government importing formula from countries with similar safety standards as the U.S., including Australia and New Zealand.
WIC, the government nutrition program for lower-income families, now allows parents to purchase any formula available, rather than limiting them to formulas under contract with the federal government. I’m also heartened to hear about Facebook groups sharing information on where to find formula, and parents offering their extra supply to people in need. Physician offices, including mine, are providing formula samples to patients. With all these initiatives, I hope we will emerge from the crisis soon.
Dr. Kasey Scannell is a pediatrician with Novant Health Pediatrics Symphony Park in Charlotte.