When Olivia M. Godden discovered she was pregnant last year, she felt relieved her child would be born in 2022. After all, the COVID-19 spread was largely under control and she and her husband had been vaccinated.
After she gave birth in February, doctors told her there was a baby formula shortage.
“At first I was like, ‘I’m not going to panic, I’m going to find it,’” said Godden.
And at first, she did. Walmart, Target and Amazon all had the Similac baby formula she needed in stock. But more recently, that hasn’t been the case.
“There was nothing,” she said. “That’s when I started becoming more paranoid and stressing out, thinking, ‘I need this formula for my baby.’”
Godden asked family in Tyler, Jacksonville and Dallas, and even friends in Houston, for help locating the baby formula her son needs. When family and friends also faced bare shelves, Godden became “really afraid,” she said.
“It’s like when COVID hit,” said Godden. “Everybody was out trying to get toilet paper. With babies, it’s a little bit different. There are other mothers too that need formula, so I’m not gonna be those people that go and buy all this formula just for my baby.”
San Antonio hit the hardest
San Antonio had the highest out-of-stock rate in the country, at 56%, one of just three cities in the nation with out-of-stock rates above 50%, according to an analysis by Datasembly, which provides product pricing and other data for retailers. Texas was among the seven states that had out-of-stock rates higher than 40%. The nationwide average was 31% in April.
“Inflation, supply chain shortages and product recalls have brought an unprecedented amount of volatility for baby formula,” said Datasembly CEO Ben Reich. “We expect to continue to see the baby formula category being dramatically affected by these conditions.”
The shortage was exacerbated by Abbott Nutrition’s recall of powder baby formula manufactured in Michigan after evidence of Cronobacter sakazakii, a bacteria, was discovered at the manufacturing plant.
The FDA, which is investigating conditions at the plant, said it is working with Abbott Nutrition to assess production capacity at other Abbott facilities; Abbott has said it is attempting to ramp up production at its plant in Cootehill, Ireland.
“We’re air-shipping product from this facility into the U.S. daily and the product is being restocked regularly,” the company said.
‘What am I going to feed my baby?’
Last Thursday, Godden was down to her last can of formula. Every hour, she had been checking stores’ stock online and reaching out to friends in San Antonio and in Facebook groups.
“I was afraid and scared, thinking, ‘What am I going to feed my baby?’”
The desperate mother has had to switch to liquid, pre-made formula after having online orders canceled due to lack of stock. Recently, she called her pediatrician to get samples as backup.
“To this moment, I’m still pretty frightened. What if it does get worse, and then we cannot find any formula? Like, what is our next step? What should we do?”
University Health Newborn Intensive Care Unit (NICU) dietician Rachel Jacob has been on the frontlines of the shortage, sharing alternatives with parents as shelves remain wiped clean.
The shortage is critical, she said, and parents are suffering a lot of anxiety.
Jacob walked the formula aisle Wednesday night at her local grocery store; she called the bare shelves “alarming.” Because retail stores still have significant shortages, Jacob recommends new parents look online at buybuyBaby and Amazon.
Jacob warned against feeding infants any sort of store-bought milk.
“Breast milk and infant formulas have the specific nutrients that our babies need in order to provide optimal growth and neurocognitive development,” she said. Diluting formula is also dangerous, she said.
Generic formulas are better than milk products, she said, and may be more available online.
Resources for low-income families
Families enrolled in the state’s Women, Infants and Children (WIC) supplemental nutrition program have some additional options, said manager Kelly Bocanegra.
Usually, WIC covers only certain baby formulas, but since the recall, Bocanegra said it has added more formulas to qualify for coverage.
For example, she said, “If your baby is on Similac Advance … then these are the formulas that are comparable to that formula. And they’re able to purchase that formula without having to go to the clinic to get the card updated,” said Bocanegra.
She said every morning, WIC case managers call local retailers and grocery stores to find out what they have in stock, so when parents call, they know where to point them.
The state is also sending WIC offices emergency formula. For desperate parents who can’t find formula anywhere, Bocanegra said they’re offering cans to families already on WIC.
She said Similac is in production again and can be found at some grocery stores, but she fears people are panic-buying as much as they can so they don’t run out.
Bocanegra said WIC’s lactation center has recently seen an uptick in mothers looking to breastfeed as a result of the baby formula shortage. There, board-certified lactation consultants help mothers learn to breastfeed, and in some cases, for those who breastfed and then switched to formula, to relactate.
Finding hope in connection
For now, Godden has been buying baby formula wherever she can find it. That means scouting several stores multiple times a day.
Until shelves are stocked again, Godden is connecting to mothers on Facebook. Like her, many parents are sharing the moment when they’re down to their last can, allowing others to help, sending spare formula where it’s needed most.
Similar acts of kindness are happening across social media, as parents post encouraging messages and where to find baby formula when full shelves are spotted at stores.
Godden is grateful for the support.
“It truly touches my heart that we’re in this together, we have each other’s back,” she said. “We’re going to make it, we’re going to continue to do that. We’re going to be there for each other.”