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Baby Formula Shortage: The Do's and Don'ts

A nationwide shortage of baby formula is creating empty store shelves and raising questions among parents about how to provide babies with proper nutrition. Before switching to alternative means, contact your health care provider to determine what is best for your child to ensure their nutritional needs are met.

While breast milk is highly encouraged and the best way to give babies the proper nutrients and antibodies they need, not all women can breastfeed, and not all babies can tolerate breast milk. In the absence of breast milk, formula is recommended.

Here's what you should and should not do during the nationwide shortage:

DO NOT substitute formula without the help of a medical professional. Reach out to your pediatrician or family doctor if you have questions.

DO NOT dilute baby formula. Diluting formula also dilutes the calories babies need for growth and development. Diluting could also cause electrolyte abnormalities, which can impact the amount of sodium and other minerals babies need. To ensure optimal nutrition, formula should be mixed properly and according to the manufacturer's instructions.

DO NOT make homemade baby formula. Decades of research on baby formulas have determined what's needed to provide essential nutrients to help babies grow and develop. Baby formulas have been heavily studied and rigorously tested to guarantee they are safe and healthy for babies. Formulas are also measured in specific proportions of proteins, minerals, carbohydrates, vitamins, etc. Making a homemade formula would not match these needs.

DO NOT substitute with a toddler formula. Baby formulas are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and have been heavily researched to make sure they contain the right nutritional compositions of fats, proteins, carbohydrates, minerals, and vitamins. Formulas' compositions are shifted based on the age and development of a child. Changing to a toddler formula wouldn't meet a baby's developmental needs.

DO NOT switch to cow's milk or goat's milk. Cow's milk is not recommended until after one year of age due to the lack of iron that could cause a deficiency if given earlier. Goat's milk should also not be substituted as it can also result in deficiencies of important minerals, such as folate and iron. There are some exceptions for babies over six months old, but it should only be temporary and with iron supplementation. Reach out to your health care provider before providing cow or goat milk to your child.

DO NOT stock up on baby formula. It's not necessary to buy more supply than needed. This will ensure there's enough formula for everyone. "You should buy to meet the needs of your baby," says Michelle Hofmann, MD, deputy director of the Utah Department of Health. "You never want to have more than a few weeks' supply on hand while experiencing a shortage."

DO switch baby formula brands if the brand your baby is currently taking isn't available. "Sometimes babies have some trouble switching formulas, and that's because the taste is a little different," says Wendy Hobson-Rohrer, MD, pediatrician and associate vice president for Health Sciences Education at University of Utah Health. "For example, it's the same as if we changed between brands of soda." If this is the case, you can decrease the current formula and slowly add some of the new brand to help with the transition.

Parents who need special formula for babies who have allergies or who can't tolerate a soy or milk-based formula should contact their health care provider.

DO increase breast milk supply if you are partially breastfeeding or even stopped breastfeeding. It's possible to re-lactate at any time, but it's easier within the first year of giving birth. Lactation professionals are trained in emergency situations such as re-lactation or induced lactation. Contact a board-certified lactation consultant if you want to increase your supply.

DO find a milk bank near you if you'd like to donate breast milk. While most pasteurized donated human milk is reserved for NICU babies, more inventory will allow milk banks to provide breastmilk to others.

DO work with a health care provider if you would like to donate your breastmilk to another family. It's important to look at the benefit and risks. "Mother-to-mother milk sharing is a wonderful gift from one mom to another," says Elizabeth Kirts, MPH, IBCLC, lactation manager at University of Utah Hospital and Board Chair of Mountain West Mother's Milk Bank. "But we have to be very aware that it isn't regulated, and there aren't protections in place as there are with a milk bank." At milk banks, mothers are screened to make sure they are healthy and providing enough milk for their own babies.

While mother-to-mother or informal milk sharing is not encouraged, those who plan to share their milk are encouraged to speak to their health care provider.