Baby formula shortage in Birmingham—resources + advice from local pediatricians

Baby formula shortage in Birmingham—resources + advice from local pediatricians
Formula is running out across the nation. (Lucy Wolski)

There is currently a nationwide shortage of baby formula going on, affecting families and caretakers across the country. We spoke with local pediatrician Dr. Elizabeth Sahlie from Simon-Williamson Clinic at Princeton Baptist and Dr. Peily Soong from Pediatrics East in Trussville (a Children’s of Alabama practice) for advice and resources. Read on for details.

A serious shortage

Birmingham is no exception to the cities that are experiencing mass baby formula shortages due to a major company recall. As a result, many parents are scrambling to find formula at stores—oftentimes being met with empty shelves.

“The formula shortage is impacting the Jefferson County and Alabama WIC program in a big way…We are receiving many calls daily from parents who are not able to find the formula their infants are prescribed. It began with the specialty formulas; however, now we are seeing shortages of all formula types.”

Natalie Clements, JCDH Nutrition Services Coordinator, in a statement to ABC 33/40

In desperation, parents may be making formula at home, diluting it with water and more. The pediatricians we spoke with have advised heavily against that, as it can be very risky for your baby’s health. Here are their answers to some commonly asked questions regarding the shortage:

Is diluting formula a safe alternative?

“Definitely avoid diluting formulas. It is really important that formulas are mixed exactly as the instructions say, whether it’s a powder product or a concentrated product. If you over-dilute a formula, it can lead to a condition called water intoxication in an infant, which will result in electrolyte abnormalities and can lead to seizures and really serious medical problems. You should definitely never over-dilute formula.”

Dr. Elizabeth Sahlie, Pediatrician, Simon-Williamson Clinic

Is homemade formula a safe alternative?

“We advise against homemade formula. I know I’ve seen a lot of comments on social media and about using old formula recipes, but I think in general, they’re not safe and they don’t meet nutritional needs for infants. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, there have been infant deaths reported from use of some homemade formulas. They’re subject to contamination with bacteria and the same over-dilution problems that we previously mentioned.”

Dr. Elizabeth Sahlie

Overall, Dr. Soong provided a helpful overview of actions to avoid:

  • Do NOT mix formula differently than what the instructions say.
  • Do NOT hoard formula. Get only about 10 days to two weeks of supplies at a time.
  • Do NOT make homemade formula.
  • Do NOT use expired formula or formula that has been mixed but sitting too long.
    • Unused but mixed formula is good for 24 hours in the refrigerator.
    • Unused but mixed formula is good for two hours at room temperature.
    • Once a baby has started drinking from a bottle, formula is good for one hour.
  • Do NOT buy imported formula from other countries.

Can parents receive formula from their pediatricians?

“Formula companies do supply pediatrician’s offices with samples. But, for example, in our office we had to go through and discard all the recalled samples from Similac, so our sample stock is fairly low right now, but we do have some. If everybody calls their pediatrician, the pediatricians are not going to have enough samples to supply, but I would definitely encourage them to do that before they resort to making homemade formula or diluting their baby’s formula to stretch their supply.”

Dr. Elizabeth Sahlie

Dr. Soong also said that pediatricians can be a resource, but don’t count on them having a large supply to provide.

Where can parents look for alternatives?

“I have always told parents that store-brand formulas are perfectly fine to use and are nutritionally just as good as name-brand formulas. The vast majority of store-brand formulas are actually made by the same company, Perrigo, so getting the Wal-Mart brand is the same as the CVS brand. Parents can go to www.storebrandformula.com to see equivalent store-brand formulas to the corresponding name-brand formulas.”

Dr. Peily Soong, Pediatrician, Pediatrics East in Trussville

He says that looking online for purchasing formula is also an option, but make sure you’re buying from a reputable company as there can be counterfeits online.

As for babies who have special formula requirements (allergies, digestive issues, etc.) Dr. Sahlie recommends contacting your baby’s doctor for assistance.

Why can’t parents just breastfeed?

“I encourage all new mothers to breastfeed if possible. However, many times for mothers, breastfeeding just doesn’t work. Here are some reasons:

  • The baby never latched well.
  • The mom’s milk never came in.
  • Stress on the mom from either post-partum depression or stress from having a new baby.
  • The baby was born prematurely.
  • Mom has a medical condition or life circumstances that prevents her from successfully breastfeeding.
  • The baby was adopted.

“I have always been a proponent that I would rather have a mom that is happy formula feeding than a mom that is depressed and breastfeeding. We need to stop shaming mothers that cannot or choose not to breastfeed as it serves no purpose except to make mothers feel bad. Especially at this time with the shortages, we do not need to be looking down on parents who are stressed enough about finding proper nutrition for their child because they did not breastfeed their child.”

Dr. Peily Soong

Resources

Jefferson County Department of Health

According to ABC 33/40, the Jefferson County Department of Health is working hard to provide for those in need:

“We are ordering formula and distributing it from the clinics as it becomes available. We are having to make changes to the food prescriptions for infants based on availability. The state WIC office has developed reports for staff to see where recent formula purchases have been made in order to refer clients to those stores. We wholeheartedly understand parents are concerned and we are doing our best to ensure infants in Jefferson County are receiving the formula they need.

Natalie Clements, JCDH Nutrition Services Coordinator, in a statement to ABC 33/40

American Academy of Pediatrics

The American Academy of Pediatrics website offers plenty of helpful articles on what you can do during the formula shortage and relactation tips.

Lactation Support

For mothers who would like to breastfeed or try relactation, here are some local resources:

Plus, visit the Alabama Breastfeeding Committee to locate a breastfeeding support group near you.

Mothers’ Milk Bank of Alabama

Mothers’ Milk Bank of Alabama (MMBA) is a nonprofit organization that collects, processes and facilitates the distribution of excess mothers’ milk, providing nourishment to babies in need and sick or premature infants. It also helps moms who can’t supply their own milk because of stress, medications or other complications.

Mother’s Milk Bank of Alabama provides a tiered system for determining who gets milk. Priorities include:

  • Hospital NICUs—babies who don’t have access to their mother’s milk
  • Babies or children at home who are prescribed donor milk from their pediatrician—for chronic health conditions, illnesses
  • Adoptive families
  • Babies who are having difficulty nursing for structural reasons
  • Babies whose moms are not able to provide breastmilk—because of death, stroke, cancer treatments or other reasons

Supplies are much shorter than demand at MMBA. If you would like to donate milk, start the screening process by filling out the online application. If you’re unable to donate milk, you can support the MMBA through monetary donations or volunteering in their lab.

Facebook Groups

Social media platforms such as Facebook have support groups that are working to help connect mothers in need with formula supply. However, please heed pediatrician’s warnings regarding homemade formulas, purchasing formula online and diluting formula.

United Ability Formula Drive

If you happen to have non-expired, unopened baby formula that you’d like to donate to local parents in need, please DM @nodrezin, the director of early intervention nonprofit United Ability, on Instagram. They’re accepting donations to distribute to local parents.

Where have you been seeing baby formula available in Birmingham? Tag us @bhamnow and let us know.

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Gabby Gervais
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