Milk Matters

How Is the National Formula Shortage Affecting Sarasota Babies?

"Our community is aware of this national issue, and are ready to extend a hand," says Healthy Start Sarasota executive director Ewens.

By Allison Forsyth May 17, 2022

Across the United States, expectant and new mothers are concerned about the ongoing baby formula shortage. Limited supply due to the pandemic, a bacterial contamination and subsequent recall of Abbott Nutrition, one of the most popular formula brands, a slowly declining birth rate, and the FDA's regulation requirements—which prohibit the import of European formulas, for example—are all contributing factors to the shortage.

And while the White House develops a plan to help baby formula become more accessible through programs like WIC—which provides resources for low-income women, infants, and children—how is the Sarasota community faring?

According to Sarasota Memorial Hospital neonatal ICU clinical manger Heather Graber and First Physicians Group pediatrician Rachna Gulati, formula has not been in high demand. The hospital is doing just fine on supply.

"We've worked closely with our supply chain to make certain that we have all the supply and product we need for the babies born here at Sarasota Memorial," Graber said in a video update released by the hospital last week. "We are also in close contact with formula vendors, to better meet demands and increase production. This helps ready-to-eat formula and specialty formula become available."

Gulati says her office staff haven't seen too many frantic parents. "Most of my patients are breastfed, so formula requests do not arise often," she says.

But what about mothers who are unable to breastfeed due to a medical condition, or simply don't want to—or mothers who don't have health insurance and can't visit a pediatrician for advice?

Local programs like Healthy Start Sarasota and the Sarasota County health department's WIC program have stepped up.

"We serve many women in the Newtown community and many that are part of the Latinx community," says Healthy Start executive director Shon Ewens. "Since Covid began, we've seen a need not just for formula, but for other supplies like diapers and wipes. With state funding last year, we were able to purchase diapers for people who visit us on a daily basis."

Ewens says when it comes to formula, in particular, there hasn't been a huge increase in need from her clients. Healthy Start works with local pediatricians to get formula from representatives, and she keeps a stockpile of powder formula in her office if mothers need it. Local daycares, like the Early Learning Center, have also donated powder to Healthy Start.

"Lots of new moms will get free cans of formula through various promotions and end up bringing leftovers to the daycare," says Ewen. "We just have to make sure they are not expired. WIC is a great option, too."

Gulati says that it's perfectly safe for babies to switch formula brands if needed because of the shortage. Those who need specialty formula—such as ones fortified with hydrolyzed or amino acids to prevent low sodium and iron levels—can find it at WIC.

Above all, moms shouldn't make their own formulas or water down the supply they have, because it can be extremely dangerous for their infants.

"Stick with the FDA-approved stuff," says Gulati. "It's made with just the right amount of nutrients for infants' needs and growth. The rest can be easily contaminated and can cause starvation and health deficiencies."

There have also been stories in the news of parents attempting to feed infants cow's milk or almond milk, which is not advised. Children may be able to drink cow's milk if they are closer to a year in age and can eat other solid foods. For younger infants, however, cow's milk may not be totally safe because of its high protein content. Parents should consult with their pediatrician if they have questions.

Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC say that breastfeeding is the healthiest option for children under a year. But that's not always an option for new mothers for a variety of reasons, ranging from medical issues to having to return to work outside the home after maternity leave. There is no national paid maternity leave policy in America. Federal law provides new mothers with six weeks of unpaid time off, but not all workers qualify—and most employers don't provide paid leave for workers, either. This puts the U.S. in the ranks of only six other countries that don't offer paid leave: the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea and Tonga. Research shows that both mothers and babies benefit most from three to six months of time at home together.

For mothers who want to breastfeed but are experiencing difficulties, Healthy Start offers a lactation consulting program to help. WIC also provides single-user electric breast pumps for full-time working mothers and students who are fully breastfeeding if they prefer that over receiving formula.

"Breastfeeding can be a daunting task, so we have certified consultants go into homes and help teach moms," says Ewens. "And if you are looking for breast milk sharing programs online, visit Breast Beginnings on Facebook and see if you can find any resources."

Gulati and Graber both agree that finding an accredited breast milk sharing program is better than asking neighbors or acquaintances. Gulati suggests going to the Human Milk Bank of Northern America's website, where you'll find a list of local donors. And Ewens says local foundations, like the Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation, have reached out to see if there's a need for formula.

"Our community is aware of this national issue, and are ready to extend a hand," says Ewens.

If you are concerned at all about the baby formula shortage and meeting your baby's nutritional needs, visit your child's pediatrician or a local health clinic to learn more.

For more information about lactation consulting and other parent resources, visit Healthy Start's website here or call (941) 861-2905.

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