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What are safe substitutes for baby formula? Amid worsening shortage, avoid homemade recipes

·6 min read

Amid an ongoing infant formula shortage, countless parents in need are scrambling for alternatives.

If you're searching for a safe substitute for your regular baby formula, switching formula brands or turning to breastmilk donation banks may be among the best options. But you should never dilute formula or try a homemade recipe, experts warn.

"As a pediatrician, I'm getting phone calls and emails and even messages on social media from scared parents across the country," Dr. Tanya Altmann, who practices in Southern California, told USA TODAY.

Nearly 40% of popular baby formula brands were sold out at retailers across the country at the end of April, according to a recent analysis by Datasembly – worsening the shortage from 31% two weeks prior.

On Tuesday, the Food and Drug Administration said that it is "doing everything in our power" to improve the supply of baby formula.

"The only thing worse than a baby formula shortage is allowing substandard baby formula to be sold to American families. The FDA must walk a delicate tightrope between safety and shortages," former FDA Associate Commissioner Peter Pitts said in a statement. "It is doing so right now and, together with manufacturers is working to assure a supply of high-quality baby formula to American parents."

On Friday, Biden took some questions about the baby formula shortage. He talked about the already-known steps being taken, but also gave a time frame. Biden said he thinks it will be a matter of weeks or less in terms of getting significantly more formula on shelves.

When asked if the administration should’ve acted sooner, he said: “If we’d been better mind readers, I guess we could have.” He added that they’ve had to “move with caution as well as speed.”

Baby formula shortage worsens: About 40% of popular brands sold out across US

Here's what experts had to say about what to try – and what to avoid – during the ongoing baby formula shortage:

What can I substitute my regular baby formula with?

If your normal baby formula has become unavailable, consulting your own pediatrician about other best options for your child options is key – especially if there are particular allergies or sensitivities to consider. In general, safe substitutes can include getting formula samples through your pediatrician or trying new brands if possible.

"The good news is that most babies can transition safely from one formula to another. Some babies may be pickier and not drink as much but within a week, their appetite will usually be back to normal," Dr. Victoria Regan, a pediatrician at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston, wrote a statement sent to USA TODAY.

Baby formula powder is harder to find since Abbott Nutrition issued a recall in February 2022 for select lots of Similac, Alimentum and EleCare formulas that were manufactured at an Abbott facility in Sturgis, Mich.
Baby formula powder is harder to find since Abbott Nutrition issued a recall in February 2022 for select lots of Similac, Alimentum and EleCare formulas that were manufactured at an Abbott facility in Sturgis, Mich.

Baby formula recall 2022: FDA warns consumers not to use select Similac, Alimentum and EleCare

For those that are able, ordering other formulas from abroad has also "been a trend over the last five to 10 years, but it's becoming increasingly popular now," Altmann said. "What I ask (parents) to do is make sure that they're buying from a reputable retailer, that the formula meets the nutrient requirements of the U.S. formula act for an iron-fortified infant formula and (meets) government regulations."

Altmann noted that one such reliable brand is Aussie Bubs, an Australian formula. When looking into alternative brands at home or abroad, Altmann said that looking for third-party certifications, such as those from the Clean Label Project, can also help.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, if your child is over 6 months old, you can also start to slowly supplement nutrition with some solids. Talk to your doctor about options and preparation.

Breastmilk, breastfeeding

Many families choose to use baby formula because they either need to supplement breastmilk, can't breastfeed, or prefer not to. But if your baby formula is now inaccessible, you can try receiving safe, pasteurized breastmilk from donation banks.

The Human Milk Banking Association of North America, for example, can help find a bank near you. You can also look through local listings for other accredited, nonprofit banks.

HMBANA’s executive director Lindsay Groff noted that, in recent years, there's already been an increasing demand for donor breastmilk – with HMBANA distributing 22% more breastmilk in 2021 than in 2020, for example. Formula shortages have exacerbated the need.

"As of late, with these formulas shortages, the demand has more than surged," Groff told USA TODAY. "I would say it's through the roof with people inquiring about alternatives to formula – the phones are ringing off the hook."

Groff also noted that, now more than ever, people who have extra breast milk and are able to donate to accredited, nonprofit banks should take action today.

It's also important to recognize the difference between getting milk through an accredited bank and informal breastmilk sharing. Informal breastmilk sharing is not usually recommended – as there can be health and safety risks, according to the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine.

If you're already breastfeeding, talk to your doctor or lactation consultant about your supply. In general terms, the more someone breastfeeds, the more milk they will make.

"Formula or an alternative like that can lower breast milk supply – because baby is getting filled up on milk elsewhere and not coming to the breast as often," Michelle Finn, an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant based in the Kansas City area, told USA TODAY.

Finn also noted that there isn't a "quick fix" to increase supply, so it's important to consult with healthcare professionals about your personal supply.

Breastfeeding during COVID-19: Support for breastfeeding moms is already abysmal. The pandemic is making it worse.

Never make formula or water down milk

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, you should never feed homemade formula to babies or water down the formula.

American Academy of Pediatrics spokesperson Dr. Mark Corkins says both are "extremely dangerous."

Corkins and Altmann note that baby formula is very nutrient-dense and produced from extensive research – making it nearly impossible to replicate with ingredients found at a grocery store. Altmann also noted that straight cow's milk, for example, "isn't appropriate for kids under age one."

Other doctors echo these warnings.

"It is very important not to try and substitute non-human milk (cows, nut, oat, goat, etc.) in place of infant formula as it lacks important nutrients for an infant’s physical and neurological development," Regan stated.

In addition, there's an increased risk for contamination in both homemade formula and diluted formula – as the formula isn't being prepared using the safety protocols in the instructions.

Altmann and Corkins also stress that watering down formula can cause significant health issues down the line – including deficient nutrition and development problems.

"You're not gonna get enough nutrients... You're diluting your nutrition and (that will) affect their growth, including things like brain growth. Your brain is also growing especially rapidly during those first few years of life," Corkins told USA TODAY, adding that homemade formula can lead to similar health consequences. "So quite literally, you're not giving (infants) the building blocks they need to become the full, potential they have."

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Contributing: Maureen Groppe and Mike Snider, USA TODAY.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Baby formula shortage: Safe substitute brands, donor breastmilk