With the current shortage of infant formula in the United States, parents across the country are increasingly concerned about how they will feed their children.
Some ration food or head to distant stores to find only empty shelves. Others search the Internet for homemade infant recipes using anything from powdered goat milk to raw cow’s milk.
But pediatricians warn that DIY formula milk poses significant health risks.
“Homemade formula is dangerous for children,” said Dr. Katie Lockwood, primary care physician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “The regular formula is approved by the Food and Drug Agency (FDA) and maintained to a very high standard, just like we treat drugs. Preparing it at home is much more risky.”
Commercial infant formulas are designed to mimic human breast milk as closely as possible and are carefully regulated to ensure they have the nutrients that growing babies need in a way their bodies can process.
“The nutrients in homemade formulas are inadequate in terms of the critical components that children need, especially proteins and minerals,” said Dr. Steven Abrams, spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. The entity “strongly” discourages homemade formulas.
These formulas may also contain excess minerals or nutrients, such as salt, that your baby’s developing kidneys or liver may not be able to process. The amount of water used in homemade recipes also poses a potential risk.
“The big concern is the balance of nutrients and fluids that are added, because if it is not correct it can create a situation where the child can take in too much water,” said Dr. Suzette Oyeku, chief of academic general pediatrics at Montefiore Children’s Hospital in New York. This can cause a condition known as water intoxication, which can lead to dangerous complications, such as seizures, in young children.
In recent years, there have been numerous case studies that have addressed the potential dangers of improvisation. A 4-month-old baby went into cardiac arrest after being fed a homemade formula for a month that contained seaweed, hemp seeds, and coconut water.
Contamination is another concern. Parents who make infant formula at home can also inadvertently introduce bacteria or other germs that can be very dangerous for babies under the age of 6 months whose immune systems are still developing, said Dr. Lockwood.
Inventories of infant formula are low in the U.S. in part due to ongoing supply chain problems attributed to the pandemic, but the problem was exacerbated by the FDA closing of an Abbott Nutrition facility in February after several babies they contracted potentially bacterial infections linked to Similac, Formule Alimentum and EleCare.
However, pediatricians say commercial formulas remain safer than makeshift options. The closure of the factory slowed the production of formula milk, but it was adopted to protect the babies, experts said. “It’s a sign that the system is working,” added Dr. Oyeku.
What can parents do?
The first call any parent or caregiver struggling to find formula milk should make is to the baby’s pediatrician. He may have infant formula samples on hand or can help you get in touch with local charities or breast milk banks who can help.
At the end of last week, 43% of infant products were out of stock nationwide, but Dr. Lockwood said the shortage is coming in “waves.” Most parents should use everything they can find on the shelves or on the Internet from well-known distributors and pharmacies and have no fear that changing formulas will harm their children.
It’s safe for most babies to switch to any FDA-approved formula parents can find, Dr. Abrams said, unless they have specific dietary needs. Children who ingest a highly hydrolyzed formula for allergies, for example, will need a similar substitute, as will children with specific medical needs.
To address this need, the FDA is now allowing Abbott Nutrition to release “urgent and vital supplies” of some specialty formulas on a case-by-case basis.
“A healthcare professional must submit the form, but this is a response to this specific need,” said Dr. Oyeku.
In summary, babies over 6 months of age – with no known allergies – can be given pasteurized cow’s milk for a short period of time until parents can find the formula. While it’s not ideal especially because it doesn’t provide enough iron, it’s best to offer a homemade formula or dilute the store-bought formula with water, Abrams said.
If your situation is urgent, consult your baby’s pediatrician. It can help devise a plan to come up with formulas and even act as an emotional stimulus before parents resort to something like homemade recipes.
“Feeding your baby is a vital part of what you do as a parent,” Lockwood said. “It can be really stressful to feel unable to satisfy this basic need.”
Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves