As Mississippi parents of babies who are formula-fed grapple with the national shortage, parents on government assistance and those who have babies with allergies may face extra challenges.
The formula shortage is having a major impact in Mississippi, which has the second-lowest rate of breastfeeding in the nation. Parents are taking to social media to swap formulas and post about available products that are in stock at stores. Some are even attempting to start breastfeeding again – a difficult and time-consuming process – and doctors have had to issue warnings about homemade formula.
Supply-chain issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic are one cause of the formula shortage. Manufacturers are struggling to obtain certain ingredients, and labor issues have affected distribution.
The shortage has also been exacerbated by a recent recall of three major baby formula brands manufactured by Abbott Nutrition after a probe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found bacterial contamination at one Abbott facility in Sturgis, Michigan. At least four babies were hospitalized and two died after consuming contaminated formula, the FDA said.
At retailers across the country, 31% of the top-selling baby formula products were out of stock in April, according to an analysis from Datasembly, which tracked baby formula stock at more than 11,000 stores.
In contrast, the national out-of-stock levels for baby formula were at 11% in November.
Lauren Bolsinger and her husband have been struggling to find formula for their 7-month-old baby girl, Vivianne, for several months, sometimes traveling to 10 different stores in a day and only finding one can of formula. They’ve switched formulas twice due to the shortage, and are now using a generic Walmart brand that upsets their baby’s stomach.
“Every single day, we’re going to multiple stores just hoping that it’s restocked, but it’s completely out,” Bolsinger, who lives in Madison, said.
Ashlee Wallace of Brandon has struggled to find the formula her 7-month-old son needs due to a cow’s milk protein allergy.
“It’s scary to think about,” Wallace said. “What happens if we can’t get it? What do you do?”
Bolsinger has seen other moms in similar situations. She once ran into a young mom who was crying because the store didn’t have the formula she needed. The mom told her she had been to five stores that day searching for a specific formula her baby needs due to her child’s allergies.
“Being able to get formula for your baby is not something a mom should have to worry about, at any point,” Bolsinger said.
Some mothers who have relied on formula are attempting to restart breastfeeding after previously stopping, according to retired lactation consultant Nell Blakely of Brandon.
Blakely helps run a Facebook support group for breastfeeding mothers. She said she has seen an average of two inquiries a day from moms looking for help with relactation.
Blakely has been helping walk them through that difficult process with limited success. One method is for the mother to let her baby use her breast as a pacifier, which encourages the mother’s body to produce milk.
Another method is using a breast pump in several minute increments 10 to 12 times per day.
“It’s doable, but I would never say that it isn’t a whole lot of work,” Blakely said.
And for mothers on government assistance, finding the right type of formula can be uniquely challenging. The Women, Infants and Children’s Nutrition Program (WIC) only covers four formula types unless an infant gets an exemption through a medical diagnosis.
There were 84,000 women, children and infants who participated in WIC in Mississippi in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
WIC centers are telling parents who can’t find formula to contact their pediatricians and look into direct shipping from manufacturers if breastfeeding is not an option, said Liz Sharlot, director of communications at Mississippi Department of Health.
Dr. Anita Henderson, president of the Mississippi Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and a pediatrician at The Pediatric Clinic in Hattiesburg, said her clinic has received many calls from concerned moms over the last few weeks because they’re having trouble finding the formula they use.
“We’re encouraging them to check in different stores, because smaller pharmacies and grocery stores may get restocked more quickly, or just be utilized less than the large chains like Walmart.”
Some parents are making their own formula at home, a practice that health departments and doctors warn against.
“Babies need those nutrients in the right combinations and the right concentration, and that’s impossible to guarantee if parents try to make it themselves,” Henderson said.
Henderson also said it’s important that parents don’t dilute the formula they’re using to try and make their supply last longer. That not only cuts down on the nutritional value of the formula but can cause water intoxication in babies that results in major health problems like seizures.
Health officials are also asking parents not to hoard formula once they find it. Hoarding exacerbated shortages of items like toilet paper and hand sanitizer when those items became hard to find due to supply chain shortages caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Please be cognizant of the fact that there are many moms and dads out there and we all want to keep our babies fed,” Henderson said.
The formula shortage has necessitated large multi-person hunts for the products. Facebook groups for moms are full of people asking where they can find a certain formula, while others alert the group to where they can find formula when they see it.
For Gina Lovette of Hernando, the hunt for formula has “become kind of gamified in a sick way.” She and other moms in the area have created a group chat where they go over their finds, sharing and trading cans of formula when they find the brands another is looking for.
“Moms know we have to look out for each other, but it’s ridiculous that we have to do this at all,” Lovette said.
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