Baby formula 101: Everything you need to know during the baby formula shortage
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As of this week, the baby formula stock is at 43%. While the FDA has announced plans to ease the shortage of baby formula, it could be weeks before we see retailer shelves replenished.
In the meantime, parents are wondering if there are other options for feeding their infants, as well as the best ways to make the most of the formula they do have on hand.
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We spoke with Mallory Whitmore, a certified infant feeding tech and founder of the Formula Mom, an education and advocacy website, and Dr. Natasha Burgert, pediatrician and spokesperson for Philips Avent and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) to gain some insight into everything you need to know about infant formula.
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Are all infant formulas created equal?
All infant formula brands sold in the United States must meet rigorous standards and regulations as well as minimum nutritional requirements set forth by the Infant Formula Act of 1980 and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
While all major brands and generic store brands will meet your baby’s basic needs when prepared and fed as directed, not all brands are exactly the same.
"All infant formulas provide... the same macronutrients and micronutrients as required by the FDA. That said, the ingredients that a formula uses to provide those nutrients can vary significantly,” said Whitmore.
Can I use toddler formula in place of infant formula?
The answer to that depends. While toddler formulas are not routinely recommended by the AAP and the FDA for infants under 12 months, they may be used in the cases of a shortage crisis under the guidance of your pediatrician.
“Several toddler formulas meet the FDA’s nutrient guidelines for infants, meaning they’re nutritionally appropriate for infants, but simply haven’t undergone the FDA’s required steps to be marketed as an infant formula,” says Whitmore.
While both Whitmore and Burgert say that certain toddler brands and formulas may be able to be tolerated by your baby, (Whitmore specifically recommends Kabrita and Baby’s Only as options to explore), they say it’s only advisable to try these alternative options under the advisement of your child’s pediatrician.
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Can I dilute my baby’s formula?
According to our experts, you should never, ever dilute baby formula with water and doing so can actually result in fatal consequences. Adding extra water or other liquids to infant formula can be life-threatening for babies, leading to seizures, arrhythmia and other serious health issues.
However, once your baby is past the 6-month threshold, you may be able to dilute and stretch your formula with other milks, such as cow or soy milk, under the advisement of a pediatrician. It is never recommended to try this on your own without a plan that has been set in place by your child's doctor.
"If your 6-month or older infant is in desperate need, offering whole milk and a multivitamin with iron while searching for infant formula could be considered with physician guidance. However, before making any changes to your baby's nutrition, call your pediatrician first,” says Burgert.
How much formula does a baby need?
For most infants under 6 months of age, you’ll see them consume anywhere from 24 to 32 ounces of baby formula, breast milk or a combo of both. These numbers can start to drift off as your child begins eating solids. Whitmore says that if you see your baby is taking significantly more or less than that amount you should consult your pediatrician, as it could be an indicator of an underlying issue.
During a formula shortage, when every milligram of formula counts, Whitmore recommends using a food scale when mixing, as a strategy to eliminate food waste and to get your formula to stretch a tiny bit further.
“Some parents may be inadvertently adding too much powder to each bottle when scooping by hand,” says Whitmore.
How to store baby formula
Once a container of powdered infant formula is opened, it should be stored in a cool, dry place with the lid tightly closed. Do not ever attempt to get your formula to last longer by storing it in the refrigerator or the freezer. The same goes for unopened pre-mixed formulas.
“Formula should be stored in a dry, temperature-controlled environment and cannot be frozen. Extreme temperatures on either end may degrade the nutrient quality within the formula,” cautions Whitmore.
Once opened, most dry infant formulas should be used within one month. An open container of powdered formula is subject to bacterial contamination, even if it hasn’t been used—so be sure to only use sanitized scoops and use up that formula quickly.
“A good habit to get into is to write the expiration date on the label. That way, you can quickly see the formula that needs to be used up first when looking at the cans on your shelf,” says Burgert.
How fast does mixed formula need to be consumed?
Once prepared, a bottle of mixed, powdered formula that a baby has not been fed from is safe to consume for one hour after mixing, unrefrigerated.
Formula prepared ahead of time that is immediately refrigerated will last for up to 24 hours. Open containers of ready-made formula, concentrated formula, and formula prepared from concentrate—in sterilized containers that a baby has not fed from—can be stored safely in the refrigerator for up to 48 hours.
Once a baby has fed from the bottle, however, that formula has been exposed to harmful bacteria that can rapidly multiply. A baby’s immune system isn’t mature enough to protect them against possible foodborne illnesses; that formula should be consumed or discarded within one hour.
How to ship baby formula?
During this formula crisis, you may be asking friends or family to ship formula they find on their shelves. Whitmore says you should take special considerations when shipping this precious cargo. She advises using extra packaging to reduce the risk of damage, such as denting and tearing during transit.
"Additionally, formula should be shipped overnight or via priority mail to reduce risks associated with poor temperature control during transit,” she says.
What are the best formula alternatives?
While we know this is the million-dollar question, according to Whitmore, Burgert and every other expert we’ve spoken to, there just isn’t one.
“Infant formula is one of the most regulated food products in the U.S., in both sterility and ingredient balance. There is no substitution for the safe and complete infant nutrition that formula provides infants who need it,” says Burgert.
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