Baby formula shortage frustrates parents

INDIANAPOLIS – New parents and caregivers of newborns are running into a frustrating problem.

They cannot find formula.

“We checked Costco, Costco online, Walgreens, Long’s, can’t find it anywhere,” Irene Anhoeck, a parent, told CBS News.

According to the research firm IRI, retailers had about 95 percent of formulas in stock before the pandemic began. Recently, availability dropped to as low as 75 percent across ten national retailers. The firm found powdered formula was less available in big cities including Seattle, Wichita and Tucson.

Indiana parents confirm they are driving everywhere trying to find the right formula for their children.

“We have definitely been seeing the formula shortage firsthand in our clinic,” Kenzie Clifford, a registered dietician at Riley Children’s Hospital, said. “Regardless of whether parents are getting formula through home care services, WIC services or paying for it out of pocket, substitutions are definitely having to be made.”

That is easier said than done, though. Many babies rely on special formulas because of gassiness, fussiness or a lactose intolerance.

“Infant formula is uniquely designed to meet the nutritional needs for babies,” Clifford said. “Formula companies all have a standard term infant formula and then there are formulas for premature infants, there are ones that are more sensitive for sensitive stomachs. There are broken down formulas. Depending on your baby’s medical condition, they might need a specific formula. Sticking with the one that is best for their needs is really important to make sure they get the nutrients they need for growth and brain development.”

Pediatricians want babies to stay on breastmilk or formula for at least a year.

“Formula, you definitely go through it quickly! Especially as your kid gets older and you’re feeding them more bottles and more volume. It is definitely something you can go through very quickly,” she added.

CBS4 asked what parents should do if they cannot find their formula.

“If the store you normally go to doesn’t have the formula you normally buy, call around to other stores in the area before you drive all around town. Call and see if they have it in stock,” Clifford advised. “Your second option is check online services like Amazon and see if there is some you can order online. And then you can also reach out to the formula companies themselves.”

Anchor Angela Brauer did that, but Abbot – the company that manufactures Similac – confirmed a supply shortage. The representative on the phone was not able to provide a list of locations where consumers would be able to find certain formulas, nor could she offer a timeline for when the product would be back on store shelves.

When asked for an official statement, Abbot referred CBS News to the Infant Nutrition Council of America.

It said:

“Meeting the needs of the families who rely on infant formula is the top priority for members of the Infant Nutrition Council of America (INCA).  Broadly, there are reports of challenges across supply chains, including an impact on transportation and logistics, and some suggestions of pantry-loading behaviors. Infant formula manufacturers are actively working with our suppliers, distributors, retailers and state agencies to ensure availability and access to infant formula.  As always, it is essential to obtain infant formula from a safe, reliable source and discuss feeding-related questions with a healthcare provider.”

Enfamil responded to CBS News and said it has an “ample supply” of its products:

“At Enfamil, we are dedicated to giving the millions of babies and toddlers that rely on our formulas the best start in life. We are aware that some parents are having trouble finding their favorite baby formula in their preferred store. We would like to reassure all parents that we have ample supply across our Enfa family of products to meet the needs of all babies who rely on our formula. However, U.S. baby formula industrywide sales are up 18%, which is more than double what birth rates and other indicators predicted. We have taken steps to ramp up production and are currently shipping 50% more product, to address issues as fast as possible.”

IRI blamed the shortages on procuring raw materials needed for production and packaging. A spokesperson also cited labor shortages in the factory, across transportation and in stores.

“Even if it is in the back of the store or in the warehouse, kind of getting it on the shelf sometimes if there is a labor shortage, may be challenged,” Krisnakumar “KK” Davey, with IRI, explained.

Clifford said babies who rely on standard ingredient formula will probably switch with no issues. In those cases, families can try to find generic brands instead. Those whose children rely on special makeups will want to check with their pediatricians beforehand.

“Try to pick one or two to stay consistent. Mixing and matching formulas can cause issues and get complicated. So if you have to switch formulas, try and do it slowly. If you know the one you use is out of stock and on backorder, get another one and slowly introduce it and give it some time for your infant to get used to it,” Clifford said.

She stressed that parents should not switch to cow’s milk, toddler formula, homemade or diluted formula out of frustration.

“Infant formula is specifically and uniquely designed for the needs of infants. Using anything other than FDA certified formula puts your baby at risk for not getting the nutrients they need and the calories they need to grow,” Clifford pointed out.