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Baby formula shortage: What Colorado families need to know to keep their babies safe

Posted: 2:02 PM, May 23, 2022
Updated: 2022-05-31 18:59:39-04
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DENVER — Parents across the country, including here in Colorado, are scrambling to find baby formula to feed their children as the nation deals with an unprecedented shortage after one of the main producers of the specialty product was forced to shut down due to sanitary concerns.

So how can Colorado parents navigate the ongoing shortage and what are local organizations doing to help them feed their young?

In this 360 In-Depth report, we’ll look at:

  • How the baby formula shortage began in the first place
  • What the government is doing to help Colorado families
  • Why pediatricians (and the data) say breastfeeding is not an option for many
  • What not to do as the shortage continues

How did it come to this point?

As with all things, the novel coronavirus plays a part. Since the pandemic started back in 2020, there have been significant shortages of infant formula in some stores due to supply chain issues.

It’s not just the virus’ fault, though: Only four companies (Abbott Laboratories, Mead Johnson Nutrition, Nestlé USA, and Perrigo Co.) are responsible for 90% of baby formula production in the United States.

So, when one of them (Abbott) had to shut down after a voluntary February recall exacerbated the ongoing supply chain issues, families were left with fewer options to choose from at the shelves.

The recall was triggered by four illnesses reported in babies who had consumed powdered formula from its plant. All four were hospitalized with a deadly bacterial infection and two of them died.

Abbott officials pushed back on those claims, saying its products have not been directly linked to the bacterial infections, but the FDA argued investigators were unable to collect bacterial strains from two of the four children, limiting their chances of finding a match, according to the Associated Press.

After a six-week inspection, the FDA published a list of problems in March, including lax safety and sanitary standards and a history of bacterial contamination in several parts of the plant, the AP reported.

The reasons for the shortage don’t make the number any easier to digest: As of the week ending May 8, 43% of the nation’s baby formula was out-of-stock, according to Datasembly.

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So what is the government doing to help Colorado parents who can’t find baby formula?

To start, officials with Abbott Laboratories said last Monday the company had reached an agreement with U.S. health officials to restart production at its largest domestic factory in Sturgis, Mich., which has been shut down since February after the deadly bacteria, called cronobacter, was found inside the plant near production lines.

The FDA said it expected Abbott to restart production in about two weeks, with the formula hitting the shelves in about two months from now.

No parent can wait two months to feed their baby, which is why Congress, the Biden administration, and even the FDA are stepping in to allow baby formula imports from countries in South America and Europe, which have ample supply.

The FDA also said last Monday it was streamlining its review process to make it easier for foreign manufacturers to begin shipping more formula to the U.S., according to the AP. The policy is temporary and will last six months, officials said. Emergency funding requests area also being considered in Congress.

Five days after the White House launched a website with resources for families looking to find baby formula during the shortage, President Joe Biden announced he was invoking the Defense Production Act to speed the production of infant formula and has authorized flights to import supplies from overseas, which he called "Operation Fly Formula."

Gov. Polis last week also announced a partnership with Mothers’ Milk Bank (MMB) through the Rocky Mountain Children’s Foundation, to help Colorado families affected by the shortage.

The bank has collected, processed, and distributed donor human milk to babies through the country for over 40 years and the Polis administration is calling on women who are able to do so, to donate breast milk to the bank.

“Every ounce counts. The more donated milk we can get in the door now, the more we’ll be able to support families for the weeks and months to come,” said Rebecca Heinrich, director of Mothers’ Milk Bank. “We are thrilled to partner with Colorado on this important effort to support families.”

Families who would like to donate or purchase milk through the MMB can go to this website for more information. People interested in donating in an alternative method can contact the MMB by email.

Last but not least, Colorado health officials, in partnership with the state department of Human Services and the Colorado Attorney General's Office has created a dedicated website with the latest guidance and resources concerning the formula shortage. Families with infants are encouraged to use this resource for up-to-date information on where to find help during this national crisis, state health officials said.

“Can’t women just breastfeed their babies?"

Not quite.

“We can’t just blanketly say that. ‘Oh, yes. Just increase your own supply’ because there’s a lot more to it than that,” said Dr. Sonal Patel, a neonatologist and pediatrician who spoke with Denver7 recently about the intricacies of finding alternatives to provide babies with food during the shortage.

Patel said breastfeeding is a viable option for newborns, but it gets more difficult to get babies to breastfeed following an initial two-week period after they’re born.

She said parents should reach out to their pediatrician or a neonatologist like herself to help them establish breastfeeding “because that is really a critical time.”

Data from the CDC shows a little more than half of all babies born in the U.S. (58.3%) still breastfeed after six months and the percentage of those who are exclusively fed breast milk through six months drops even lower, to 25.6%. Nineteen percent of infants have required formula during the first two days after they’re born as their mother’s supply makes itself available for them to consume, the data shows.

In Colorado, only 69.2% of infants are still breastfeeding at six months and only 34.1% exclusively breastfeed by then, meaning two-thirds of all Colorado infants are being fed a combination of baby formula and breast milk by the time they’re 6 months old.

For older infants – those 9 months or older who are starting to eat solid foods – they may not even need that much formula anymore, Patel said.

She recommended that families speak to their pediatrician about getting your baby the right nutrients from other foods while the baby formula shortage continues.

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Can’t find baby formula? Don’t make your own, health experts say 🚫

Desperate families struggling to find baby formula may think it’s a good idea to try and make their own, but health experts are sounding the alarm and are calling on parents to not get desperate and make homemade recipes which are being shared across social media platforms right now.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says feeding babies DIY baby formula – even if recipes have legitimate ingredients that would appear to be healthy to a young child – is dangerous and not recommended as it does not meet babies’ nutritional needs.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also advises against making homemade baby formula as it can lead to poisoning as well as inadequate amounts of critical nutrients babies need for their growth and development.

As early as February of last year, the FDA had received adverse event reports of hospitalized infants suffering from hypocalcemia (low calcium) after they were fed homemade baby formula.

What should you do if you can’t find baby formula? Here are some tips and resources from the AAP.

As a last resort, the AAP last this week babies over the age of 6 months can have whole cow’s milk, but it isn’t ideal and should not become routine. If you are going to give your infant whole cow’s milk, you should limit the amount to 24 ounces per day, officials said.

Before going this route, however, the AAP recommends parents check in with their doctor about giving their babies cow’s milk, since it’s not recommended until infants reach the age of 12.

Additionally, toddler formula can be substituted for regular infant formula for babies who are close to a year old, experts told CNN.

Health experts also say parents can use substitute formulas if their regular brand formula isn’t available. Parents should contact their pediatrician or their local Colorado Women, Infants and Children (WIC) clinic if they have questions or concerns.

Parents can also breastfeed their babies but hoarding more than two weeks of breast milk is strongly discouraged, health experts say.

Both the FDA and the APP warned against using baby formula sold overseas as there could be contamination or formulation quality control issues that the FDA does not regulate, according to ABC 7 Chicago.

If you’d like to more information about tips and ways to find baby formula right now, both USA TODAY and Wire Cutter have come up with helpful guides on what to do to stay afloat of the shortage.

Colorado WIC has also put together a helpful guide for families with several resources to help them navigate the baby formula shortage while production resumes.

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