Formula shortage ‘challenging’ for parents who have babies with allergies — doctors offer advice

The baby formula shortage continues to impact many families as formula makers and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) investigate what led to the national crisis.

For the week of May 22-May 29, the latest out-of-stock rate for infant formula jumped to 73.58% nationwide, according to data by analytics firm Datasembly. This was nearly 4% higher than the week prior and was a significant increase from last month when the out-of-stock rate stood at 45%.

A spokesperson with Datasembly told FOX Television Stations Wednesday that the "infant formula stock situation in the U.S. continues to be quite volatile" and the out-of-stock situation is expected to be "nearing the peak."

While many American parents struggle to find infant formula, health experts say the problem has been exacerbated for parents with babies who require a specific formula due to allergies.

Parents struggle to find baby formula for allergies

Emily Ingrich, a 31-year-old mother, told FOX that the process of finding baby formula has been difficult.

"It's been horrible. My son has a dairy allergy so he needs a specific formula that has been impossible to find," she shared. "We live in a rural area of North Carolina and have driven over three hours away to find his formula."


Baby formula is offered for sale at a big box store on January 13, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. Baby formula has been is short supply in many stores around the country for several months. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Yet, this is only one woman’s story, as many families struggle to find baby formula for their infant with allergies due to the nationwide shortage.

"This is a challenging situation for new parents," Dr. Steven Miller, a pediatric gastroenterologist with Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, told FOX. "Being a new parent is amazing but also really stressful, and this can definitely add to that additional stress, especially for families who are struggling getting access for a baby who has extra needs."

Babies who require a specialized formula commonly include premature infants, babies who have trouble tolerating regular infant formula or breast milk or babies with certain medical conditions.

"All of those kids have more trouble getting access to their formulas during this shortage," Miller continued.

RELATED: Baby formula shortage: Out-of-stock rate continues to worsen, jumping to 73.5%

These types of allergies are most commonly associated with babies under one year of age and are different than the type of allergies typically found in older kids, such as a peanut allergy.

According to KidsHealth, a milk protein intolerance from formula may lead to symptoms in babies including wheezing, trouble breathing, coughing, throat tightness, an upset stomach, vomiting, diarrhea, swollen eyes, hives, a drop in blood pressure and blood or mucus in infant’s stools.

But, the severity of allergic reactions to milk can vary. The same child can react differently with each exposure. This means that even though one reaction was mild, the next could be more severe and even life-threatening.

Where can I find formula for my baby with allergies

Extensively hydrolyzed formulas offer complete nutrition for infants who are allergic to cow's milk protein, KidsHealth explains. 

Dr. Jenifer Lightdale, a pediatric gastroenterologist who serves on the American Academy of Pediatrics committee, said most babies with allergies who need hypoallergenic formulas have what we call a "milk protein allergy" — where their immune systems are reacting to intact proteins in the formula.

Casein is a cow's milk protein that is a common cause for allergy symptoms. Extensively hydrolyzed formulas break casein into pieces, so about 90% of babies with a cow's milk allergy will tolerate these formulas.

"Infants with food allergies have less hypoallergenic formula options, so as shortages of different formulas have occurred, the families of these babies have had less alternatives to use if they cannot get more of their typical formula," Lightdale explained.

Common brands include Nutramigen, Similac Alimentum and Gerber Extensive HA. 

Alimentum was one brand affected by February’s recall when the FDA warned consumers to avoid some powdered baby formula products from a Sturgis, Michigan, facility run by Abbott Nutrition, which then initiated a voluntary recall.

Elecare — an amino acid-based formula — was also recalled.

According to findings released in March by federal safety inspectors, Abbott failed to maintain sanitary conditions and procedures at the plant.

The FDA launched its investigation after four babies became sick with a rare bacterial infection after consuming formula manufactured at the plant. All four babies were hospitalized and two died. 

Chicago-based Abbott said in a statement, "there is no evidence to link our formulas to these infant illnesses." Abbott noted that samples of the bacteria collected from the infants did not match those found in the company’s factory. 

Ultimately, this recall along with supply chain disruptions have caused major delays among retailers and companies. This has also caused stores to put limitations on how much baby formula customers can buy.

So, if you’re on the hunt for specific formula, doctors suggest talking to your pediatrician first, especially if your baby must use a hydrolyzed or amino acid-based formula. 

If your baby requires a specific brand, experts suggest discussing options with your pediatrician or calling a local food bank to see if they can help locate some formula.

They also recommend checking with smaller stores and pharmacies, which may still have supplies when larger stores run out. 

Baby formula can also be very costly, so for families who qualify based on income, the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) — a federal program like food stamps that serves to help families — can provide formula, free of charge.

Doctors also suggest seeking out local groups online. Many local parent groups have postings about unopened, unexpired formula canisters available to give away or sell. During this time, experts say it’s okay to look for formula online, but check that it is sold by a reputable supplier, unopened and unexpired.

Formula substitutes

Miller noted if your baby has allergies, they may still be able to switch to a different brand, but similar type of formula. 

Lightdale agreed, adding: "For example, if the baby is on an amino acid-based formula (AAF) that is being affected by the shortage, then they should switch to another AAF. Alternatively, if their baby is thriving on an extensively hydrolyzed formula (EHF), then they should switch to another EHF." 

The North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition (NASPGHAN) provides a list of formulas that are comparable and safe to substitute for each other. However, experts say any substitution should only be done under the recommendation and supervision of a healthcare professional.

"If families are not sure what to switch to, or if they have any questions about what to feed their baby, they should talk to their baby’s doctor who originally recommended or prescribed the allergy formula for the infant," Lighdale continued.

Do not stockpile, watering down formula

While the baby formula shortage is a challenge for many parents, doctors say parents should not try to make their own formula at home from cow’s milk or add extra water to the formula to stretch supplies. Both of these things could make the baby sick.

Sarah Adams, who is with Ohio's Pediatric Primary Care, Hudson, made it quite clear on this point: "I do NOT recommend making your own formula," adding "The AAP strongly advises against homemade formula."

She continued, "These [options] are not safe and not FDA approved — infant deaths have been reported."

Many do-it-yourself formula recipes are made from cow’s milk and granular sugar that may be difficult for young babies to digest. They also lack the specific vitamins and proteins found in breastmilk and FDA-approved formulas that are needed for basic nutrition.

Adams also recommends not watering down formula — citing this practice as "dangerous," that "can lead to poor nutritional balance and serious complications."

Additionally, most experts don’t defend stocking up on formula for "just-in-case" scenarios.

"In general, I’m not in favor of parents buying up a ton of formula that they aren’t sure they will need. People stockpiling formula is part of why stores are running low. " Miller explained. "That being said, it would be okay for new parents to have a can or two of formula at home, especially if they are thinking of using formula."

If you are actively using baby formula, the AAP advises buying no more than a 10-day to two-week supply of formula.

"The shortage is temporary. Parents are in this together. Please avoid stockpiling, help your neighbors, and focus on infant safety," Dr. Kelsey Klaas, a pediatrician at Mayo Clinic, said.

Expectant mothers encouraged to breastfeed

If you are an expectant mother, many doctors are urging women to consider breastfeeding, especially due to the current formula shortage.

According to the Mayo Clinic, breastfeeding provides the best nutrition for an infant and is the most widely recommended way to feed a newborn.

RELATED: Baby formula vs. breast milk: Doctors explain what parents should do amid formula shortage

"Breast milk contains the right balance of nutrients for your baby and boosts your baby's immune system," Jay L. Hoecker, an emeritus pediatrics specialist at Mayo Clinic, said. "It's considered the gold standard for infant nutrition."

Dr. Cynthia Blanco, a neonatologist in Texas and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) echoed Hoecker saying, "If you have a healthy term baby, your best choice will always be breast milk." 

And, a number of health organizations — including the AAP, the American Medical Association (AMA), and the World Health Organization (WHO) — agree, recommending breastfeeding as the best choice for babies.

Experts say breastfeeding has chemicals that help defend against infections, prevent allergies and protect against a number of chronic conditions. Additionally, breast milk is the most cost-effective option, since it doesn’t cost a cent and formula quickly adds up.

"This shortage is a major headache, and if moms make their own milk rather than buying it from the store, that is one less thing to worry about," Miller noted adding, "The other thing doctors like about breastfeeding is that when babies breastfeed, they can decide when they are full more easily than they can with formula. This is part of why babies who are breastfed turn into kids who have a lower chance of being obese. I am definitely a big fan of breastfeeding."

Klaas noted she always encourages mothers to breastfeed when possible.

"I absolutely support breastfeeding when possible. We know that breastfeeding has benefits to both the infant and mother over formula feeding," Klass explained, adding, "The current formula shortage highlights one particular benefit of breastfeeding, which is that, for a parent who is able to produce enough milk to meet the infant’s needs, infant nutrition is not reliant on external supplies."

Health experts suggest that mothers who are exclusively breastfeeding ask their baby’s pediatrician about vitamin D supplements for their baby since breast milk alone does not provide an adequate amount of the vitamin which helps the baby absorb calcium and phosphorus — nutrients necessary for strong bones.

Mothers who are anxious about breastfeeding may want to contact friends or family who have successfully breastfed, as they may be a good source of information. Support organizations such as La Leche League, along with lactation consultants at many hospitals and clinics are available to help, as well.

When will the formula shortage end?

Earlier this week Delta, one of the world’s largest airlines, announced it would be joining the effort to bring more baby formula to the United States.

Delta and the White House announced on June 10 that the airline’s cargo division would donate 13 flights from the U.K. to the U.S. from June 20-24, transporting 212,000 pounds — or about 3.2 million 8-ounce bottles — of Kendamil organic and classic formulas.

RELATED: Baby formula shortage: Delta Airlines to fly millions of bottles from UK to US

Kendamil will export at least 2 million cans of infant formula to the U.S. — the equivalent of 54 million 8-ounce bottles, according to the White House. 

On Wednesday, the government also announced that base powder would begin shipping this month to a Minnesota facility for conversion to a final product that will be made available in the coming weeks. 

Monthly follow-up shipments will continue through November. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said it is evaluating options for getting the product to the U.S. as quickly as possible.

"The agency is leveraging a number of flexibilities to bolster the supply of products that serve as the sole source of nutrition for many infants while ensuring the infant formula can be used safely and provides adequate nutrition," the White House wrote in a press release. "The FDA remains in further discussions with manufacturers and suppliers regarding additional supply to ensure there’s adequate infant formula available wherever and whenever parents and caregivers need it." 

The White House also expects the recent resumption of production at Abbott Nutrition’s facility will mean more supply soon.

"You just don't know what formula your baby is going to tolerate and any formula change has to be supervised by your pediatrician. We went through three different formulas to find one that my son could tolerate," Ingrid continued, adding, "It WILL be ok. As mothers, it's ingrained in our DNA to make sure our children are fed, safe and healthy."

This story was reported from Los Angeles.