Everything You Need to Know on the Baby Formula Shortage

A recall, inflation, panic buying and a weak supply chain all exacerbated the shortage of baby formula

You may have questions about the powdered baby formula shortage affecting parents throughout the U.S.

The shortage has parents combing through shelves and online shopping inventories looking for what they need. Some are paying a premium to have cans of formula shipped from across the country.

Let’s get into it.

What caused the baby formula shortage?

A recall on some brands of formula, plus unusual buying habits and a weak supply chain, all combined to create this shortage, experts told NBCLX storyteller Clark Fouraker.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, retailers usually kept a larger “buffer inventory” of products — an additional supply that could be sold in case of shipping delays or sudden increases in demand, said John Quelch, dean of the Herbert Business School at the University of Miami. 

“The actual buffer inventory level for infant formula was perhaps not as great as it could have been or should have been,” Quelch said.

With inflation raising prices and then a recall of some formula brands, some parents decided to buy a few months’ supply of formula in advance, Quelch said.

“Why not buy three months’ or six months’ forward supply of infant formula and store it in your cupboard, and avoid the price increases that you know are inevitably going to come?” Quelch added.

What kinds of baby formula were recalled?

Powdered baby formula products including Similac PM, Alimentum and EleCare have faced recalls after some infants got sick with cronobacter sakazakii, a bacteria that can cause a fever or feeding issues. In more serious cases, cronobacter can cause seizures or swelling of the lining of the brain and spine, according to the CDC.

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After an investigation following four infant hospitalizations and two deaths, the FDA shut down production at the Abbott plant that made the formula products, saying conditions there were unsanitary. But the agency is still investigating how the infants became infected. 

Abbott says none of the formula it distributed tested positive for the bacteria, and that the strains of cronobacter in the affected infants was not a genetic match for the strains found in the factory (in areas away from where the products are made and handled).

These are the Abbott specialty and metabolic baby formulas that can be released ‘case by case’

In May 2022, the FDA allowed Abbott to start releasing some formula products from the shut-down facility on a “case-by-case” basis.

These are the products allowed to be released case-by-case:

  • Glutarex-1
  • Glutarex-2
  • Cyclinex-1
  • Cyclinex-2
  • Hominex-1
  • Hominex-2
  • I-Valex-1
  • I-Valex-2
  • Ketonex-1
  • Ketonex-2
  • Phenex-1
  • Phenex-2
  • Phenex-2 Vanilla
  • Pro-Phree
  • Propimex-1
  • Propimex-2
  • ProViMin
  • Calcilo XD
  • Tyrex-1
  • Tyrex-2
  • Similac PM 60/40

“Should product released on a case-by-case basis be used, parents and caregiver should pay close attention to the user’s health status and alert a healthcare provider immediately of any change in health status,” the FDA says on its website.

That link also includes information on how to identify whether your containers of Similac, Alimentum or EleCare have been recalled.

What should I do for my baby if I can’t find powdered formula?

If parents can’t buy a supply of formula a week or two ahead of time, they may want to switch the form of formula they give their baby, says Dr. Anthony Porto, a pediatrician and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“There are concentrate formulas available, as well as ready-to-feed,” Porto said. Some babies who handle formula well may be able to take intact cows milk protein formula, he added.

Pediatricians may also have samples in stock that can tide you over for a few days. Or you can try a different store than the one where you usually shop.

What not to do amid the formula shortage

While it might be tempting to try to make supply last longer, don’t dilute formula you have. It could cause electrolyte imbalances, harm your child’s growth or even lead to seizures.

Porto also advised against making your own formula — there’s no way your kitchen is clean enough to prevent contamination by all the bacteria that babies’ digestive systems can’t handle.

Don’t start feeding your kids solid foods before they’re ready either. Consult a pediatrician before making such a major change to the child’s diet.

There was already a supply chain issue impacting baby formula, and then a recall impacted the supply even further. But it's a bad idea to dilute formula to make it last longer, says Dr. Michael Anderson. He's a pediatric critical care physician at Children's National Hospital in Washington D.C.

Tips to transition your baby to a new formula

One way to make the transition between formulas easier? Mix them up!

Some kids might not notice a change, while others will. If your child is likely to be sensitive to a change in formula, try to mix a bit of the old with the new during a transition period, Porto said.

“If your child takes a four ounce bottle, mix two ounces of the new formula with two ounces of the one that you’re currently using,” he suggests. 

Over the course of a day or two, bump up the ratio so that the mixture contains more and more of the new formula.