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There is a shortage of baby formula

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

We've all felt that infamous supply chain shortage, from computer chips to refrigerators to furniture. But what happens when the thing in short supply is needed for the very survival of your child? That's what many parents are finding today with a nationwide shortage of baby formula.

SARA OWENS: My name is Sara Owens, and I live in Florence County, S.C.

RASCOE: Sara is the mother of a 6-month-old, and it's been a struggle to find the formula she needs to feed her daughter.

OWENS: It's like - it's an every-week scavenger hunt, almost, without the fun involved. It's - you know, online, it'll say it's at Walmart. And then by the time you get there, it's gone. But it's also out of stock online, so you don't really know even where to look. I hit the bottom of the can when I'm making a bottle and it's like, you know, (vocalizing) what do I do now?

RASCOE: And she's not alone. One day, she's walking down the aisle in Walmart, and she comes across a desperate father.

OWENS: He was pretty stressed out trying to get to the formula aisle. And we started looking and he was like, I drove two hours from where I live, and I get here and it's not here. And he was just crying because he's like, I can't feed my kid.

RASCOE: The supply chain shortage has forced retailers to ration their supplies, and manufacturers say they're scrambling. Sara's also noticed that prices are up.

OWENS: It's almost between 60 and $80 a week, whereas one of my friends - she is spending over a hundred dollars a week because her child has to have a very specific type, which can retail for anywhere between 40 to $50 a can.

RASCOE: After talking to Sara Owens, we wanted to know what the medical consequences of this formula shortage are and what families can do about it. So to tell us more, we've reached Dr. Magna Dias. She's a pediatrician and associate professor at Yale School of Medicine and joins us now. Welcome.

MAGNA DIAS: Thank you so much for having me.

RASCOE: Are parents able to find the formula that they need? And also - I know with my babies, they had specific formula and a specific brand that we used. And we never switched up on that because we were always concerned about, like, our baby getting, you know, an upset stomach or something from changing. So can you talk about how parents may be feeling or dealing with that?

DIAS: For parents whose babies are healthy, there's really not a lot of big difference between the different formula brands. So it is absolutely fine to change formula brands if that is what is needed.

RASCOE: OK. Well, what if you have to use one of those specialty formulas? Because there are, you know, certain things when it comes to formula where there's some for sensitive stomachs. And some of them actually have to deal with allergies.

DIAS: Yeah, so the specialized formulas is where I think, as a pediatrician, I have the most worry - that's where we're having our critical shortages in terms of supply - and also because those babies generally have been given a specific formula for a reason because they're not able to tolerate other formulas. And I would say that if you're having difficulty with finding the formula, you should definitely talk to your pediatrician about what to do. And more so than everybody else, you know, there's the importance of planning ahead when you require a specialty formula.

RASCOE: And are you worried about parents who may need this formula? Or are you worried about - some parents may even try to stretch the formula, which I understand that is what you're not supposed to do.

DIAS: Yes. So it is something that I'm worried about. We have heard stories of parents hoarding. So I'd advise parents to please not hoard because this way, everybody can have what they need. It is particularly a worry about parents doing substitutes or trying to stretch the formula out. And there's a couple of worries there. One - your baby may not be getting enough nutrition if you're not giving them all the calories that they need. And then the other thing is that babies - when they're little, their kidneys are not mature. And for that reason, they need that perfect formulation. Otherwise, it could actually cause them to get very sick and have to come to the hospital.

RASCOE: So do not water down milk.

DIAS: That's probably one of the most dangerous things that we see. We have had patients come to the emergency room seizing because they have watered down the formula for a variety of reasons.

RASCOE: Well, what advice do you have to parents who have an infant? When they're that young, you're so worried about them. You want to do everything right. And they're hearing about this shortage, and they are worried. Like, what advice do you have for them?

DIAS: Yeah, so I would say for parents of newborn babies to work with your pediatrician to get the support that you need to breastfeed if you can because that will help, as we don't know exactly what's going to be happening with this formula shortage moving forward. The other thing that I would really caution against is home-making formula. There's a lot of recipes on the internet. But the problems there are with infections that sometimes happen, and also, it's such a difficult process to get exactly that right nutrients mix, that you could be putting your baby at danger. The one other thing that I see commonly is people making the switch over to using whole cow's milk earlier. Again, while most formulas are either cow's milk-based or soy milk-based, those milks have been modified and nutrients have been added to make it specifically for infants.

RASCOE: Dr. Magna Dias is a pediatrician and associate professor at the Yale School of Medicine. Thank you so much.

DIAS: Thank you again. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.