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Experts: Try generic baby formula, avoid home recipes amid national shortage

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Grace Voegeli-Smith

Grace Voegeli-Smith is the mother of twin boys who were born prematurely eight months ago. She relies on a specialty baby formula to keep them fed, a formula that's been in low supply amid the nationwide shortage.

Grace Voegeli-Smith has about two to three weeks before panic ensues again  before there's another scramble to find baby formula that suits the needs of her 8-month-old twin boys, who were born prematurely.

The Sun Prairie mom currently relies on ordering specialty formula in bulk from Amazon, with some shipments containing roughly 18 cans taking weeks to arrive. That became the routine after Voegeli-Smith's recent trips to several Dane County and state retailers turned up bare shelves.

Voegeli-Smith was recently down to her last can. It took an excursion to Minnesota to find two more  her boys go through one can in about 36 hours. The stay-at-home mom used to breastfeed, but stressors greatly reduced how much milk she was able to produce. She's now fully reliant on formula.

Voegeli-Smith is not alone in her struggles amid the nationwide shortage of baby formula, which is showing no sign of letting up. To mitigate the problem, Madison-area experts suggest mothers of infants try generic versions, seek help in shopping around, avoid homespun recipes, look for donor breast milk and consider breastfeeding if possible.

“The store-brand formulas, or the generic versions, are wonderful and can be used instead of the name-brand formulas,” said Dr. Lindsay Geier, a pediatrician with SSM Health, noting the more abundant generics face the same level of federal regulation as brand varieties.

Geier said social-media mothers’ groups and clinics, including hers in Monroe, have been helping parents find scarce formula in various stores.

Retailers themselves are having trouble keeping product stocked. Some national pharmacy chains such as Walgreens have rationed formula purchases for parents like Voegeli-Smith. Many smaller Madison pharmacies and grocers say they don't carry formula at all.

Seeking options

Mothers whose children are nearing 12 months, when cow's milk is usually started, can consider switching earlier but should first consult with their doctors, Geier said.

People shouldn’t water down formula to make it last longer or make it themselves from recipes found online, said Morgan Finke, spokesperson for Public Health Madison and Dane County.

“We are strongly urging against any sort of modifications,” Finke said. Altering commercial formula or making homespun mixtures can be “extremely dangerous,” Finke said, because they may not be nutritionally sound and could increase the risk of infection.

The county’s Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, program, which serves nearly 5,000 people, has heard from many women struggling to find formula, Finke said. So far, the program has been able to help them obtain an adequate supply, she said.

Families whose babies have medical conditions requiring specialized formulas are especially affected by the reduced supply, Geier said. Abbott, whose recall of powdered formulas in February exacerbated the shortage, makes Similac Alimentum, used by many babies intolerant of cow milk protein, and Similac PM 60/40, used by infants with kidney disease.

Alimentum alternatives, including Enfamil Nutramigen, Gerber Good Start Extensive HA and store-brand formulas labeled hypoallergenic, can be found, Geier said. There are no formula alternatives to PM 60/40, so families should contact their doctors, she said.

Human milk

Mothers who need support with breastfeeding can contact their clinics, the city-county health department or lactation support groups, said Polly Karl-Wisdom, a lactation consultant with SSM Health.

“Human milk is the preferred method of feeding for babies,” Karl-Wisdom said. “An infant’s own mother’s breast milk is designed specifically for that baby’s needs.”

Geier said breastfeeding can strengthen the bond between mother and infant, help with maternal weight loss, improve infant absorption of nutrients and reduce the baby's risk of diabetes, obesity and infections.

“There are multiple benefits to breastfeeding babies,” she said. “But it’s not the right thing for all families. We don’t want a family to get discouraged if they are not able to breastfeed.”

The Madison-based Mother’s Milk Alliance provides “raw” breast milk donated by screened mothers to those who need it. The group has been seeing a “big increase” in demand, founder Ingrid Andersson said.

The alliance prioritizes infants younger than 3 months, but can usually meet requests for those up to 6 months, Andersson said.

The Mothers’ Milk Bank of the Western Great Lakes in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, has several dispensaries for its pasteurized donor breast milk in Wisconsin, including Hoey Apothecary in Madison. The bank also has numerous depots, including some in the Madison area, where women can donate milk.

Demand persists

The baby formula shortage and its impact on retailers dates back to when Abbott Nutrition, the nation's largest manufacturer of the product, closed its Michigan plant amid a recall citing contamination concerns a few months ago.

That's likely going to have a ripple effect for an uncertain amount of time on grocers in Madison and around the state, said Wisconsin Grocers Association CEO Brandon Scholz. The association represents nearly 90% of the state's grocers, small and large, as well as eight distribution centers.

"The demand never goes down for formula," Scholz said, adding that puts pressure on an already strained supply chain. 

Sourcing the right ingredients and having enough workers will play a role in solving the shortage. But empty shelves and workforce challenges remain the norm for the time being, as Madison stores have told Scholz.

In tandem, demand for pasteurized breast milk in Madison has gone up by at least 20%, said Summer Kelly, executive director of Mothers' Milk Bank, adding that 25% of the bank's milk goes to parents at home and the rest to hospitals.

Kelly said it's the "stress and anxiety" of the formula shortage that's driving that demand. The bank is on track to receive 1,200 breast milk donations this year. 

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