By the time they are six months old, 75 percent of babies in the U.S. use formula. And for many babies under 1, formula is the primary or exclusive source of nutrition—which is why the baby-formula shortage is so frightening to many parents. The reasons for the shortage include the general supply-chain issues plaguing many sectors of the economy and the shutdown of a major formula plant earlier this year due to contamination. Manufacturers have increased production, but can’t ramp up fast enough to meet demand, because such production is heavily regulated.
Parents are panicking about what to do. For some families who rely on specialized formulas, this is a true crisis; they may literally not be able to access what they need. This problem needs urgent policy attention. For families on WIC, rules restricting eligible formulas have made life more difficult. A relaxation of these rules for a few months should help.
But for many parents, the issue isn’t that they cannot find formula at all, but that they cannot find the type of formula they typically use. They can find Enfamil, but not Similac. Powder, but not liquid.
What, as an individual parent, should you do?
Let’s start with what you shouldn’t do. First: Don’t stockpile. More formula is being produced now than last year at this time.
Second: Don’t make your own formula. You can find “recipes” for formula online, with ingredients like cod liver oil and nutritional yeast. But they typically do not have the appropriate nutrient content. Although milk is the main ingredient in most formulas, milk alone is not a close substitute. Its carbohydrate content is too low, and it lacks many of the vitamins and minerals that are necessary for infants.
Third: Don’t stress too much about the brand. Beyond specialized formula, one formula is not too different from the next. Most are a mix of milk, lactose, oil (typically a combination of safflower, coconut, and soy), and whey protein. Soy formulas replace milk, lactose, and whey with corn and soy.
FDA formula regulations are extremely strict, for good reason. They require a set amount of calories from protein and fat, vitamins (A, B1, B2, B6, B12, C, D, E, K, niacin, folic acid, pantothenic acid, biotin, choline, inositol), and minerals (calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, iron, zinc, manganese, copper, iodine, selenium, sodium, potassium, chloride). The result is that the nutrient compositions of formulas, regardless of manufacturer, are extremely similar.
Let’s compare Similac and Enfamil, the two leading brands. They have virtually identical compositions of protein, fat, and carbohydrates. And their vitamin and mineral contents are also very, very similar. Similac has slightly more biotin and Enfamil has slightly more B12, but the values are close, because they have to be.
Where formulas do differ is in the source of the ingredients. Formulas can be organic. They can be made with milk from grass-fed cows, from happy cows, from more sustainable sources of soy. These distinctions matter to many parents. I also understand that some babies are quite picky, and that switching from one brand to another can cause distress and sleepless nights—for babies and their parents. But in this moment of constraint, parents can trust in the fact that basic nutritional content is extremely similar across all options.
Even if you prefer organic broccoli, in a pinch, conventional broccoli is a substitute. And a much better one than cauliflower, which in this analogy is the make-your-own option.
Of course, all of this misses the point a bit. The central concern is affordable access to formula for everyone. Policy makers have made some progress, even floating the idea of adding infant formula to the Strategic National Stockpile. The FDA is considering allowing more imported formula. And the Department of Health and Human Services has a new website where families can get help finding formula. These are small steps that will hopefully lead to bigger ones.
In the meantime: Don’t stockpile, don’t make your own, and rest assured that, for most babies, whichever formula you can find should be a suitable substitute until production is back at normal volume.