“Since we have been breastfeeding, we had not even thought about formula until we had no other option,” she said. “After his appointment, I rushed around for hours and felt defeated when I couldn’t find anything. His pediatrician didn’t even have a sample can for us.”
Harrison looked at over 20 stores within an hour drive of her home in Kettering, and only found one can of off-brand hypoallergenic, which she says might last four days.
“Every morning before work, I check stores to see if it has been restocked, only to find out it has been on backorder for months now. They order it and it never shows up on the truck. It’s unavailable on Amazon, and on the Enfamil website,” she said. “The uncertainty of if my baby will have food is so scary.”
The head of the Food and Drug Administration told lawmakers Thursday that a shuttered baby formula factory could be up and running as soon as next week, though he sidestepped questions about whether his agency should have intervened earlier to address problems at the plant that have triggered the national shortage.
The problems are largely tied to Abbott Nutrition’s Michigan formula plant, the largest in the U.S., which has been closed since February due to contamination problems. The FDA announced a preliminary agreement with Abbott earlier this week to restart production, pending safety upgrades and certifications.
After production resumes, Abbott has said, it could take about two months until new formula begins arriving in stores. FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf said it will be “a few weeks” before supplies return to normal levels, especially in rural areas that aren’t near distribution hubs.
Breastfeeding, while recommended for babies less than six months old, is not an option for everyone. Many mothers struggle to produce milk or cannot produce a sufficient amount of it in order to feed their babies, said Kenzie Engle, a family nurse practitioner at Rocking Horse Health Center in Springfield. Mothers sometimes, too, are taking medication that can make breast milk harmful to an infant, and the use of formula is necessary for the baby’s health.
Ingram said her milk never came in, a result of medication she had to take in the past, and said that many other mothers she chats with in mother support groups on social media have her same issue.
“It makes you feel bad, because you can’t do what nature wants you to do,” Ingram said. “And it’s frustrating: I really wish I could!”
Many mothers are also are working to financially support their families and can’t pump their own breast milk multiple times during the day, Engle said. She added that many parents adopt their children and aren’t producing breastmilk, and many grandparents, too, are caring for their infant grandchildren without the baby’s mother in the picture.
“I was lucky enough to do breastfeeding for two months, but it took a lot of hard work and determination,” said Harrison. “It took a lot out of me mentally and physically as well. So telling moms to just breastfeed is not a fair solution to this problem.”
Engle said she has witnessed many people shame mothers for the use of formula.
“It’s already stressful, having a newborn in the home,” Engle said. “And that’s just added stress and guilt put on the mother.”
Verlee Langston, the pediatric clinical team lead at Rocking Horse, said that patients at the health center are sometimes given formula samples if the mothers “run out” on WIC or are switching formula types.
The Ohio Department of Health said Wednesday that it has applied for federal waivers to give mothers more choices when selecting baby formula through Supplemental Assistance for Women, Infants and Children, more commonly known as WIC.
The federal program helps both mothers and children get nutritious food and safeguard their health, and provides education and resources on formula and breastfeeding, but the program often comes with strict guidelines that say what brand and how much of infant formula a mother can purchase at a time.
Jorge Magana, the program manager for WIC in Greene County, says that formulas are chosen based on the needs of each infant.
“Many have medically complex needs. Some need prescription formulas,” he said. “If for some reason they can’t find that formula, we work with a healthcare provider to provide a different one.”
Stephanie Sager of Beavercreek, who participates in the program, says her 11-month-old daughter Amelia is transitioning to eating solid foods and doesn’t have to rely on formula. Sager says she’s lucky.
“You can only purchase it from certain stores, and you can only purchase a certain kind of formula and a certain size,” she said. “You would think with a shortage they would allow you to get other brands that are available.”
The Senate on Thursday unanimously passed a bill to improve access to baby formula, and President Joe Biden has invoked the Defense Production Act to direct suppliers of formula ingredients to prioritize delivery to manufacturers. The FDA this week has also relaxed its rules to allow for increased formula imports.
Shortages were seen in prescription formulas first, but the issue has now ballooned to nearly all formulas. Months of spot shortages at pharmacies and supermarkets have been exacerbated by the recall at Abbott, one of just four companies that produce roughly 90% of U.S. formula. Abbott’s brands account for nearly half that market. The company shuttered its largest U.S. formula manufacturing plant in February due to contamination.