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'They have to help us out': Mass. parents are feeling the nationwide formula shortage

Containers of baby formula and cereal on shelves at the Neighbors in Need Diaper Bank in Lawrence. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Containers of baby formula and cereal on shelves at the Neighbors in Need Diaper Bank in Lawrence. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Esteffania Rodriguez, of Haverhill, is on the phone every day with stores that sell baby formula. She’s searching for the kind her 5-month-old daughter, Liliana, needs to stay healthy.

“I know that the situation is really bad. I don’t know what’s going to happen in a month,” she said. “I’m on the lookout constantly.”

Baby formula of all kinds is in short supply right now, but Rodriguez needs a specific type of formula that’s designed for infants with a milk protein allergy. Because her daughter needs a specialized type, it’s even harder to find, said Rodriguez.

Her pediatrician’s office doesn’t have any, and as soon as it comes into stock at a store, it flies off the shelf. Her health insurance company said it would send her some — if it could find any — but so far, it hasn’t been able to.

The shortage of infant formula has been slowly gathering steam for months. Due to a recall by a major formula manufacturer and general supply chain issues, stocks of formula are low across the country.

In February, the company Abbott recalled several major brands and shut down a Michigan factory after federal officials concluded that four babies had suffered bacterial infections linked to formula from the facility. Two of the infants died.

The factory remains shuttered, and the ongoing slowdown in production has contributed to the nationwide shortage.

Sarah Ducas, of Waltham, said it’s been stressful finding formula for her two-month-old triplets. She tried breastfeeding right after they were born, but with triplets, it was difficult.

The babies get hungry about every three hours, she said. After the switch to formula, she found they eat up to four ounces at every feeding. Multiply that by three babies, and the family can go through a small can of powdered formula in about a day and a half.

One of her biggest worries is running out of formula to feed her infants.

“It’s challenging not to be kind of panicky about it,” she said.

Supplies of baby formula are particularly vulnerable to disruptions because just a handful of companies account for almost the entire U.S. supply.

Nationwide, about 40% of large retail stores were out of stock last week, up from 31% in mid-April, according to Datasembly, a data analytics firm. More than half of U.S. states were seeing out-of-stock rates between 40% and 50%, according to the firm, which collects data from 11,000 locations.

Adam Jordan, of Waltham, combed the internet Thursday morning for formula for his 6-month-old daughter, Maia.

“I spent about an hour just looking through different vendors: Walgreens, BJ’s, just trying to get formula in the cart. Out of stock, out of stock, out of stock,” he said.

Maia doesn’t require a special formula, so Jordan said he’s happy to buy whatever he can get. But even that’s getting a little nerve wracking, he said. Stock is so low everywhere. He doesn’t want to run out, but he also doesn’t want to make things worse for other parents.

“Am I part of hoarding when I buy whatever I can find? I don’t know. It’s hitting close to home,” he said.

Some parents are turning to social medial groups or food banks for help. Dr. Christopher Duggan, director of the Nutrition Center at Boston Children’s hospital, said parents should speak to their pediatricians or registered dietitians if they need formula or are concerned about switching formula brands — but for most babies without any digestive or health issues, switching should be OK.

For infants with digestive problems or allergies, however, the shortage of specialty formulas is a real problem, said Duggan. After the Abbott factory shut down, Duggan said his clinic saw multiple children who lost weight and became malnourished when they were unable to access specialized formula.

“Some allergies can be life-threatening if they’re not treated properly,” he said. He urged families of infants with allergies or other health concerns to consult with a pediatrician.

Deborah Youngblood, executive director of the Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast, said her organization has seen a slight increase in demand for donated breast milk, but there’s also been an increase in people offering to donate their breast milk.

“It’s such a compassionate response to try to be … part of the solution to the challenges that families are facing,” she said.

Mothers’ Milk Bank focuses mostly on babies in neonatal intensive care units, said Youngblood. A milk bank isn’t the solution to the formula shortage — it’s just a small way to bridge the gap.

In the longer term, she’d like to see more support for parents who want to breastfeed, putting less pressure on the formula supply.

“Obviously, not everyone can breastfeed, and not everyone chooses to do so, and that is absolutely appropriate,” said Youngblood. “But I think if we had more supportive legislation, more supportive workplace policies and more supportive communities in general, we might actually see more women initiate and sustain breastfeeding.”

Duggan cautioned that parents should not try to make their own formula.

“Mistakes can happen and lead to significant electrolyte imbalances, nutritional deficiencies [and] dehydration,” he said. “Not a good idea.”

On Thursday, President Biden met with formula retailers and manufacturers to “discuss ways we can all work together to do more to help families access infant formula,” including working with states to expand the sizes and types of formula available for families receiving food assistance.

Biden announced additional steps to help, such as cracking down on price gouging and possibly importing formula from other countries. Congress could take up legislation aimed at addressing the shortage next week.

For now Rodriguez, from Haverhill, said she has about a month’s supply of formula for her daughter. But as time goes on, and shelves remain empty, she’s worried about what might happen if she can’t find the specialty formula she needs. She blames manufacturers for the problem.

“They’ve got to do something,” she said. “They have to help us out. This is not right.”

Material from the Associated Press was used for this report.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 WBUR. To see more, visit WBUR.

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