Don’t Water Down Your Baby Formula and Other Crucial Tips for Making It Through the Shortage

Katherine Gibson-Haynes helps distribute infant formula during a baby formula drive on Saturday in Houston, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

By Michael McElroy

May 17, 2022

Here’s what caused the shortage, what’s being done about it, and what parents can do now.

Like families across the country, North Carolina parents are having a hard time finding baby formula. The issue has been particularly serious for people whose children have special dietary needs.

The shortage was caused by a tangle of reasons that will take time to resolve, but there have been some promising developments on the federal level. 

Here’s a look at what’s being done to fix the problem and what parents can do in the meantime. The universal thread among all of the recommendations is to check with your pediatrician and run any specific ideas by them.

Most Importantly, Here’s What Not to Do

Getting the nutrition content right is crucial for infants, so state and federal officials warn parents not to try making their own formula or altering the formula they have. The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services issued guidance for parents and led with the dangers:

  • “Do NOT water down your baby’s formula to stretch it out, it can be extremely dangerous to your baby to do so.”
  • “Do NOT try to make homemade formula,” health officials said, or give toddler formula to a baby under a year old. “These can also be dangerous.”

So What Can North Carolina Parents Do Now?

Here is some guidance and warnings from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services:

  • Call your pediatrician if you can’t find formula or can’t find your baby’s specific formula. They will help you develop the best feeding plan and can help direct you to groups, agencies or organizations that could help find you the product you need.
  • Only buy formula from reputable retailers, not from unknown individuals, online resellers or from overseas. How formula is stored and shipped can impact its safety for your baby.
  • The department said it would take several steps to expand access to formula for families in the federal WIC program (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) and help the program direct families to supplies and place bulk orders with manufacturers for the local WIC agencies. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) offers more guidance

  • Check smaller stores and drug stores, which may not be out of supply when the bigger stores are.
  • If you can afford it, buy formula online until store shortages ease. (Though there are some shortages and delays even online.)  Purchase from well-recognized distributors and pharmacies rather than individually sold or auction sites.
  • For most babies, it is OK to switch to any available formula, including store brands, unless your baby is on a specific extensively hydrolyzed or amino acid-based formula such as Elecare (no store brand exists). Ask your pediatrician about recommended specialty formula alternatives available for your baby.
  • Check social media groups. There are groups dedicated to infant feeding and formula, and members may have ideas for where to find formula. Make sure to check any advice with your pediatrician.

And it’s important enough to repeat what has already been said: DO NOT water down the formula you have in an effort to make it last longer, and do not try to make your own infant formula at home. Here’s the AAP with its direct warning about the dangers:

  • “Watering down formula is dangerous. It can cause nutritional imbalances in your baby and lead to serious health problems. Always mix formula as directed by the manufacturer.”
  • “Although recipes for homemade formulas circulating on the internet may seem healthy or less expensive, they are not safe and do not meet your baby’s nutritional needs. Infant deaths have been reported from use of some homemade formulas.”

What Caused the Shortage?

Like many of the problems facing the country at the moment, the pandemic carries a lot of the blame. COVID disrupted the supply chain for ingredients and other essentials, just like it has across several industries, and with wave after wave of COVID cases, manufacturers have had trouble keeping their operations fully staffed.  

And like with toilet paper and COVID tests, many people overbought and hoarded early in the pandemic, causing supply strain even before the final major problem presented itself.

The biggest blow to the supply chain came in February, when Abbott Nutrition, one of the country’s biggest manufacturers of baby formula, shut down a large facility in Michigan after the FDA found the presence of bacteria near the preparation areas. Four infants got sick and two died from bacterial infections after being fed formula made at the plant. The FDA shut down the plant and issued a recall for vast amounts of the powdered formula.

Add all these disruptions together, plus the increase in panic-buying once news of the shortages began to spread, and it was more than the system could handle.

What’s the Federal Government Doing About It?

First the good news: The Biden Administration announced this week that the Federal Drug Administration had approved two major plans to increase the supply, even if the result would not be immediate. The FDA reached an agreement with Abbott to reopen the shuttered plant closed during the recall. Plant officials say that they should be able to start restocking the shelves in a few weeks. 

Second, the agency said it would allow formula made at plants the FDA oversees abroad to be imported into the US. These are big developments, but they will take time to get things back the way they were. 

Have you had trouble finding formula for your infants? Have you had success finding formula through any of the methods above? Drop me a line at [email protected].


  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.

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