What to do in a baby formula shortage

Caring for a newborn is stressful AF. There’s the sheer amount of poop you face on a daily basis, the struggle to get your child to JUST GO TO SLEEP, and the sometimes confusing art of swaddling them up like a perfect baby burrito. The list goes on.

When you’re a bottle-feeding mum contending with a baby formula shortage, though, that stress is off the charts. WTF do you feed your baby when you can’t get your hands on the formula you need?! 

A lot of mums have had to face this dilemma in recent times, and it’s bloody scary.

Wait, what?! Is there a shortage of baby formula in Australia?

At the time of writing this (June 2022), no mama. Thank god. There’s no need to trek around to every Chemist Warehouse within a 50km radius and buy all the formula. (That’s called panic buying, and it’s silly.)

But there have been baby formula shortages in Australia prior to 2022. Back in 2013, for example, there was an issue with Chinese customers and tourists shipping formula products back home, which dwindled supplies for local Aussie mamas. Terrifying times! 

And at the start of the pandemic, we all got a bit crazed with fear and emptied shelves of… well, pretty much everything. Including baby formula, at times. But mostly toilet paper. Weirdos.

So we’re OK at the moment. But you may have heard about the baby formula shortage going on in the United States. The news has been flooded with stories of desperate parents travelling hours, going pharmacy to pharmacy to try and find formula for their babies. It’s truly heartbreaking. So what’s THAT situation about?

Why is there a baby formula shortage in the US?

It’s largely to do with a major formula manufacturer, Abbott, closing down a production plant following a BIG product recall. Some of its products were linked to a rare bacterial infection, so they had to shut it down to be safe. This was a pretty serious blow to the US baby formula supply chain, which was already under strain thanks to none other than our old friend, the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The industry simply hasn’t been able to keep up with demand, and formula has had to be shipped in from other countries (including us generous Australian folk!) to keep babies fed. Wild!

It’s a very specific set of circumstances that led to this situation, but it begs the question: What would you feed your child if formula wasn’t available? Are there safe alternatives to baby formula you could use in a pinch?

We’ve looked into it, and are pleased to share what the experts recommend you do in the case of a baby formula shortage.

What to do in a baby formula shortage

1. Try different stores

This would probably be your first thought if the local Woolies is out of stock. Check other stores, including those random small general stores. Smaller shops could have stock even when larger retailers are all out.

2. Order online

If all store shelves are empty, you could try jumping onto the Internet to search for your usual formula brand. Online stores like Chemist Warehouse, Woolworths and Catch stock baby formula, or you may even be able to order directly from the manufacturer’s website. 

This could help out if you’ve still got enough formula to last you a few days, keeping in mind that shipping could take a while.

*Note: Don’t order from overseas or questionable websites. Some foreign formula brands aren’t approved by our local health standards.

3. Try a different brand

Changing baby formula isn’t a big deal in most circumstances. Different brands will have the same essential nutrients your baby needs, so it’s OK to try out a new one if you can’t access your go-to formula.

A few tips on how to change baby formula brands:

  • Try to choose one similar to what you usually use – although if it’s truly dire you could feed your baby:
    •  Premature baby formula (if that’s all you can get your hands on) for a couple of weeks.
    • Toddler formula for a week or so, ONLY if your baby is close to 12 months old.

  • Read the new label EXTRA carefully – it may have a different sized scoop and be a whole new system to what you’re used to.

  • Keep in mind your baby may not be on board with the new taste straight away, so it could take time to adjust.

The exception, of course, is if your baby has specific dietary needs requiring a certain type of formula. Talk to your paediatrician before changing things up in that case.

4. Chat to your paediatrician

They might have some formula samples they can give you, or at least be able to advise on healthy baby formula alternatives that would suit your bub. If your baby has medical needs requiring specific formula, your paediatrician is the best person to talk to.

5. Check social media groups

Jump onto Facebook and search for parent groups in your area. Parents may post on there if they have excess formula they can share, and at the very least you can ask what others are doing and benefit from community support.

6. Look into donated breast milk

Milk banks offer safe donated breast milk, usually to unwell or premature babies in neonatal intensive care units in hospitals. Mothers Milk Bank is the only charity that offers breast milk to the public, across Australia. It’s an option you could look into, although it stands to reason that during a baby formula shortage, demand for safe breast milk as a substitute for baby formula may be higher than usual.

*Note: Don’t purchase breast milk from people online, or accept donations from people you know. It could contain icky contaminants and be harmful to your baby. Milk banks have special systems for pasteurising donated milk, which is why it’s safe to use.

What you definitely SHOULD NOT do

1. Water down formula

Trying to stretch your formula further by watering it down isn’t safe. It’ll disrupt the balance of protein and minerals, and could lead to low sodium levels in your baby’s blood, or other electrolyte disorders which could land your bub in hospital. Not safe, not good, don’t do it!

Learn more about the do’s and don’ts of formula feeding over on our article about what to know about formula feeding a newborn.

2. Try to make formula yourself at home

This is NEVER a good baby formula substitute. It can be really dangerous, and has even led to infant deaths in the past.

3. Substitute animal or plant milk

Cow’s milk, goat’s milk, soy milk, almond milk or the like aren’t good alternatives to baby formula. Particularly for newborns, as their little digestive systems can’t process these types of milks, and they won’t get enough nutrients and protein from them.

There’s a catch—Steven A. Abrams, board-certified paediatrician and Professor of Paediatrics at the University of Texas at Austin, suggests that whole cow’s milk can be used for up to a week for babies over six months of age. If you need to do this, try and get lots of iron-rich solid foods into your baby as well. 

Also—babies over 12 months old can safely drink cow’s milk as a substitute for baby formula or breast milk.

4. Purchase formula or breastmilk from questionable sources

Buying from weird websites or accessing formula through social media groups can be dangerous. Be smart about it. Shop on reputable websites only, and only accept donated formula if it’s unopened, within the use-by-date, and a well-known brand.

5. Panic buy

Again, this is silly. When parents do it, it only intensifies and prolongs the baby formula shortage and means there are other families going without. The American Academy of Pediatrics is advising parents in the US to buy no more than a 10-day to 2-week supply of baby formula at once so everyone gets enough.

6. Beat yourself up

Being unable to feed your baby is a crappy, horrible feeling. Breastfeeding mothers may feel it too, when they struggle with low milk supply, their baby doesn’t put on enough weight, or if they struggle to get a good latch. But coming up against hurdles when feeding your child —especially when it’s a supply chain issue totally out of your hands—is never your fault. You should NOT blame yourself for it.

Hopefully you won’t ever need to navigate a baby formula shortage, but if you do, keep in mind that it’s a public health issue—not an individual mother issue. Turn to the strategies in this article, but never for a second doubt your proficiency as a mama. You’re doing great.

Read next: What to know about formula feeding a newborn

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