Here's What to Know if You're Still Short on Baby Formula

Learn about safe formula substitutes and more.

Jessica Rendall Wellness Writer
Jessica is a writer on the Wellness team with a focus on health news. Before CNET, she worked in local journalism covering public health issues, business and music.
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Jessica Rendall
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A scoop of baby formula against a bright blue background.
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If you've struggled to find formula for your child in recent months, you're not alone. The baby formula shortage took US parents by surprise earlier this spring and summer, and many scrambled to find suitable formula that their babies were able to eat. While access issues have eased for some within the last few months, the effects of the shortage are still being felt by others.

There've been policies put in place to help ease the burden. Guidelines for WIC, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, have been relaxed in some states. (Find your local office here.) In late August, the US Department of Agriculture extended waivers to families who use WIC so they'll have more formula options and brands available to them through the end of the year. The US Food and Drug Administration has also eased rules for imported formulas, encouraging outside manufacturers to (with permission) enter the US baby formula market.

If you're still running low on formula, here's what pediatricians say to do and where to go for replacements.

See more: How You Can Claim Money from a $2 Million Baby Formula Settlement

A baby drinks a bottle while being held.
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Where to look for baby formula if yours is out of stock

If you can't find your formula, call your pediatrician to see if they have any in stock. Pediatricians often get samples of different formulas and may be able to help out, Dr. Steven Abelowitz, pediatrician and medical director of Coastal Kids, told CNET in May. Doctors also may have samples left over from formula representatives.

"Other places that folks can look at are different charities," Abelowitz. Some charities or food assistance programs, such as the WIC nutrition assistance program, have income requirements. However, given the shortage, some assistance programs may be more willing to expand eligibility, depending on the area or circumstance. 

If you are a WIC member, contact your local office to find formula. WIC programs nationwide have been urged to loosen restrictions and help parents find alternatives.

The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends checking smaller stores instead of the big retailers (like your local mom and pop shop or drug store), and buying online from well-known distributors, if you can afford it. Social media groups dedicated to parenting may also have good resources for your area, and you may meet another parent with extra in stock. 

But make sure to run any advice you get from parenting groups by your pediatrician, the AAP notes. 

You can also safely feed formula made for babies who were born premature to full-term babies for a few weeks if your recommended formula isn't available, the AAP says.

Is it OK to switch brands? 

"Of course it's preferred to stick to the same formula," Abelowitz said, but the next alternative is finding a formula as similar as possible to the one you were using. Because there are so many formula brands, Abelowitz recommends reaching out to your pediatrician to see which formulas would be acceptable swaps. 

Because not everyone has a pediatrician they can check in with, you can also call your local pharmacy and ask to speak with a pharmacist about an alternative formula for your child, Abelowitz says.

But you should really stay away from swapping between infant and toddler formula, he says. Baby formula and toddler formula are made to address different nutritional needs. 

There are also exceptions if your child has allergies or a medical condition: "If your baby is allergic to standard formulas and you need a broken-down formula, then it's critical that you stick to that same type of formula," Abelowitz said. If this is the case for your child, make sure you talk to a pediatrician, family doctor or other expert before introducing a new food. 

In emergency situations, you can call 211 or contact Feeding America to be connected to a community specialist who can help you find local resources, according to the Infant Nutrition Council of America. 

You can also be connected with an expert through MyGerber Baby Expert to find a substitute for your formula. Finding an accredited breast milk bank may be an option for some parents in need, but you may need a prescription from a medical provider.

Since supply issues began, mostly stemming from a recall issued by major baby formula manufacturer Abbott, the FDA has loosened rules around importing baby formula into the US. While these flexibilities were meant to ease the shortage with additional supply, it doesn't mean formula quality or safety was sacrificed, says Dr. Susan Mayne, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. 

"We take the safety concerns very, very seriously," Mayne told CNET in late July. The FDA is still responsible for ensuring these formulas are safe, have the required amounts of nutrients and are labeled correctly, Mayne said. 

The FDA has a tip sheet that may help in the instructions process when preparing imported formula, including conversions from Celsius to Fahrenheit. (Note: the FDA recently issued an advisory that parents shouldn't buy Mother's Touch Formula because it's being sold without the required pre-market sign-off from the FDA and is also missing some key nutrients.) 

A smiling person is handed a can of baby formula.
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Is it OK to make your own baby formula? 

"Never," said Abelowitz. It can be dangerous from a nutritional standpoint, in that the formula might be lacking essential nutrients, but it can also contain the wrong amount of electrolytes, which can cause health problems. 

"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," the AAP said. "Infant deaths have been reported from use of some homemade formulas." 

What about cow's milk as a substitute?

Cow's milk contains insufficient amounts of iron, Abelowitz says, and shouldn't be given to babies under 1 year old. Oat or other plant milks are also lacking in protein and minerals. 

The AAP, however, says that whole milk from a cow (not the nonfat stuff) is OK to feed a baby 6 months and older "for a brief period of time in a pinch." That is, it's better than any other alternative -- including homemade formula. If it becomes necessary, the AAP says, incorporate iron-containing solid foods into your baby's diet or talk to your pediatrician about an iron supplement. Fortified soy milk (not almond or other milk substitutes) may also be an option "for a few days in an emergency" for babies who are close to 1 year old, the AAP says, but change back to formula as soon as possible. 

But whatever you do, according to the AAP and Abelowitz, don't water down your baby's formula to make it last longer. 

"This causes nutritional imbalances, and there is a thing called water intoxication, which can be very dangerous when there's too much water as opposed to formula," he said. Specifically, sodium levels can become too low, causing hyponatremia, he says.

One last formula tip from Abelowitz: Don't buy formula in bulk that you don't need. 

"By hoarding up on it, you're obviously affecting a lot of other people," Abelowtiz said. To help ease the supply issue, the AAP advises buying no more than a 10- to 14-day supply of formula at a time. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.