How Should Parents Navigate the Nationwide Baby Formula Shortage? A Pediatrician Weighs In

Dr. Bridget Young, an expert in infant nutrition, offers guidance for finding medically comparable baby formulas when their typical products are out of stock

baby formula shortage
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The nationwide baby formula shortage is worsening each day with new data by Datasembly showing the national out-of-stock rate hit a high of 43 percent for the first week of May.

While breastfeeding isn't a possibility for every family, parents are in a panic for baby formula as retailers run out of products and limit customer sales, says Dr. Bridget Young, an expert in infant nutrition and professor of pediatrics at the University of Rochester School of Medicine.

"Yes, breastfeeding is something pregnant people should be considering, but there are a lot of reasons that families end up using formula," she tells PEOPLE. "The vast majority of families who use formula had intended to breastfeed so while we should absolutely support pregnant people in making the choice to breastfeed, that's not going to solve this current problem."

For the parents concerned that they won't have enough baby formula for their children, Young weighs in on what they can do to keep their kids fed as products become scarce, first urging, "Number one thing is to call your pediatrician. They know you, they know your baby. Call them."

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Alternatives to baby formula

Incorporating more solid foods into a baby's diet can be an option for parents, but only if their child is physiologically ready for it, which can be determined by consulting with their pediatrician.

"For older babies who are already consuming good amounts of solid foods, 9 or 10 months, you can offer solids more frequently or be sure to include good healthy fats in their food to increase the amount of calories that they're getting and they may drink a little less formula," Young says.

She notes that introducing solid foods is not recommended for babies under 4 months as their digestive tracts are not ready for solid foods yet. It's best for families to follow the feeding cues from their child and ask their pediatrician if solid foods can be used more often.

"Every baby is on their own trajectory of when they're physiologically ready for solid foods. Just because you start them earlier doesn't necessarily mean that they're going to eat a lot and actually be able to consume a lot of calories from solid foods," Young adds. "A lot of those first early months are accomplishing simple things like learning how to swallow, learning how to get food off of a spoon. So starting earlier doesn't necessarily mean they'll drink less formula. Introduce solid foods when the baby is physiologically ready."

Another alternative parents can use for their infants —of older ages — is toddler formula, following discussion with their pediatrician.

"Normally, the AAP [American Academy of Pediatrics] does not recommend toddler formula at all, but in this acute, somewhat severe situation where we're having a formula shortage, toddler formulas are more available," Young explains. "They can be used, under the supervision of your pediatrician, for those older babies at 10 or 11 months. So that might be a really great solution for those families with an older infant who can't find their formula."

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How to find replacement formulas

While there are alternatives that can help worried parents stretch their home supply of baby formula, most infants — especially in the early months — must have formula or breast milk. Despite the shortage, Young assures that there are medically comparable options.

"You'll just have to switch," Young says. "I know that's so frustrating to hear if you can't find the formula you like but you can find a comparable product."

When switching baby formula, Young suggests parents focus on the protein source of their current formula and match it with the new product.

"Look at the list of ingredients, the first five or six ingredients that come before a bolded phrase like 'Less than 2%,' and focus on matching that. You can ignore everything else," Young explains, noting ingredients like milk, soy and whey to match.

"The reason for this is, if your baby has a tolerance issue with the formula — if they're not responding to a formula well or showing signs of discomfort — it's usually in response to the protein," she adds. "So if we can match the protein from your old formula to the new formula you are well on your way."

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Parents should also choose a new formula by matching terms like "partially hydrolyzed," which means the proteins in the formula are broken down so it's easier for an infant to digest, or "hypoallergenic" and "amino acid-based" products, which are more specialty baby formulas for children with allergies or severe digestion issues.

"These are more specialty baby formulas," Young says. "If your baby does not need a specialty product, like hypoallergenic or amino acid products, please leave those on the shelves for the infants that really do need them because those infants have much fewer options," Young says.

Once parents understand how to find a similar baby formula to their typical products, Young notes that buying generic brands can be the best solution for finding products throughout the shortage.

"Usually, with a few exceptions, the generic brand is a spot-on replica of the main ingredients … and all generic brands are the same." Young explains to PEOPLE. "So, Walmart's is the same as Target's so you can totally shop around. Once you're on a generic brand, you can buy any other generic brand of that type and it will be identical so that gives parents a lot of opportunity to shop around."

What parents should avoid

The nationwide baby formula shortage has caused many parents to feel as though desperate measures need to be taken. Regardless, pediatricians warn of the dangers in buying products online as it can open doors for parents receiving unreliable products.

"When you buy from a store or a regulated online retailer, you know you're getting the product that was tested at the manufacturing plant, that's not expired, that's safe for your baby," Young says. "Whereas when you get it from eBay, especially if you get a package and it's been opened, I would be very wary because there's no way to guarantee that all those safety measures are still in place — the powder hasn't been diluted, contamination haven't been introduced — so it is a huge risk to purchase from eBay or individuals like that."

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