May 31: It’s not only supply chain issues, recalls and inflation contributing to the national infant formula shortage—but an increased consumer demand for formula, too, as breastfeeding rates have declined during the pandemic, a recent survey shows. 

The number of babies who are still breastfeeding at 12 months old has dropped from an estimated 34% to an estimated 14% this year, according to surveys run by Demographic Intelligence, a forecasting firm specializing in births. Given the study’s small sample size, the firm estimates a range of error of plus or minus 6 percentage points. 

Adding to that, Enfamil reported an 18% increase in demand for formula in January 2022, and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 2020 breastfeeding report card, which used data collected before the pandemic, the percentage of breastfed infants supplemented with infant formula before 2 days of age was 19.2% among infants born in 2017, an increase from 16.9% in 2016. 

Related: The formula shortage is leaving parents in a bind

Breastfeeding requires education, time and lots of support. While an increased rate of formula usage may have started to creep up before the pandemic, after the toll Covid took on our healthcare systems, mothers simply didn’t get the same level of support—or the luxury of time—they might have had otherwise. Which meant more parents than ever had to rely on formula to fill the gaps.

Data from Motherly's 2022 State of Motherhood survey shows that 38% of millennial and Gen Z moms didn't reach their breastfeeding goals because they were physically unable to breastfeed, which could mean issues with supply or latching.

To prioritize Covid safety protocols, in summer 2020, the CDC reports that 72.9% of new mothers were released from the hospital within 48 hours after giving birth, meaning they were likely discharged before their milk came in or had a successful latch with their infant.

Skin-to-skin contact and rooming in, both of which are helpful for promoting a good latch and a strong breastfeeding relationship, also were limited due to concerns about Covid transmission. 

Additionally, 17.9% of hospitals reported that they had to reduce in-person lactation support, which meant moms would have to seek out that support online or on their own (still during a global pandemic).

Breastfeeding support groups moved online or were canceled altogether. Parents were also isolated from family and friends, who would have typically come to visit during the first weeks. 

Related: More than 70,000 pounds of baby formula just landed in the U.S.

“These practices have a positive impact on both short- and long-term breastfeeding outcomes, which in turn benefit maternal and child health,” notes the CDC.

Removing these supports directly impacts breastfeeding success, and meant more parents turned to formula at a time when manufacturers were already feeling the effects of pandemic-related supply issues.

The added time at home might have increased breastfeeding rates for some families, but not for all, especially if parents had no prior experience with breastfeeding and needed outside support.

"Parents who want to breastfeed need a strong support network, says Diane Spatz, a professor of perinatal nursing at the University of Pennsylvania and a nurse scientist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, to The Wall Street Journal. Lactation consultants, midwives, doulas and pediatricians can all be instrumental in helping a mother embark on her breastfeeding journey.

“It takes a village,” Dr. Spatz said. During the pandemic, “all the in-person, peer-to-peer support went away.”

Grappling with a formula shortage? Here's what to do when you can't find your baby's formula

Since the end of 2021, baby formula has become difficult to find in states all over the country, marking one more worry for parents amid the COVID-19 pandemic about a potential formula shortage. Compounding the widespread supply chain issues is the recent Similac formula recall, which resulted in the shutdown of Abbott Nutrition, one of the largest formula manufacturers in the country. All of these factors are making finding formula online or on store shelves incredibly challenging, and causing parents and caregivers concern over how they'll be able to continue to feed their babies.

For months, major retailers like Costco, Target and Walgreens have been forced to ration formula.

"Due to increased demand and various supplier challenges, infant and toddler formulas are seeing constraint across the country," a Walgreens spokesperson told NPR. "We continue to work diligently with our supplier partners to best meet customer demands."

In early May in some parts of the U.S., 40% to 50% of baby formula brands were sold out at retailers. Parents across the country have reported shortages and rations at Target, Costco, Long's and other retailers—both in-store and online.

Recent formula recalls, inflation and supply chain shortages have all resulted in an unprecedented amount of inconsistency in the formula market, making it one of the supply categories most affected by the pandemic.

The pandemic is causing supply-chain delays

Parents have been reporting shortages of Enfamil, Gerber, and other popular formula brands at stores across the country. According to The New York Times, the shortage is likely the result of a few issues: the supply chain causing ingredient shortages, staff shortages that are causing production and transportation delays.

Related: Viral TikTok shows the terrifying reality of the formula shortage for babies with allergies

The Wall Street Journal reports that retail chains like Walmart and CVS place the blame on supply issues, saying formula manufacturers are running low on ingredients and packing materials while also navigating labor shortages.

Formula manufacturers, however, say they have enough supplies but retailers aren't stocking their shelves with products quickly enough (also likely due to labor shortages). Formula shortages also vary based on location, and The Wall Street Journal also points out that many relocations have occurred throughout the pandemic.

The Infant Nutrition Council of America acknowledged there are some supply issues.

"Broadly, there are reports of challenges across retail supply chains, from transportation and logistics to some anecdotal evidence suggesting pantry-loading behaviors, which can put increased pressure on in-store inventory," a spokesman for the group said in a statement.

Related: The White House announces new steps to handle the formula shortage

Facing shortages and the possibility of having to switch formulas is stressful for new parents and caregivers. Here are some possible solutions in the meantime.

Tips for navigating the formula shortage

  • Call around to your local stores to see if formula is in stock. If not, ask if and when they expect to receive more product.
  • Try the generic version. If your infant isn't on a specialized formula, you may be able to switch between brands. Most store-brand formulas are very similar in composition to brand-name formulas. Try comparing labels to find one that's similar in makeup to your previous formula.
  • Consider switching to a direct-to-consumer brand. Look to Bobbie and ByHeart, which both offer subscription services.
  • Switch to liquid formula. Though it may be slightly more expensive, you may have better luck finding a pre-mixed version in stock.
  • Reach out to local parent groups on social media. You can usually find moms willing to share any excess formula they may have on-hand, just be sure cans are unopened and within the expiration date.
  • Call your pediatrician's office to check on their formula supply. This is a good option especially if your baby is on a specialized formula for allergy or nutritional reasons.

Talk with your pediatrician about switching formulas if you are experiencing supply issues, or if you have any questions or concerns regarding the shortage.

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In search of formula? Try these in-stock brands.

ByHeart formula

ByHeart

$39

Whole Nutrition Infant Formula, 24 oz.

ByHeart is the only infant formula in the U.S. to use whole milk, because it supplies more of the fats that make baby’s bones stronger and poops softer. ByHeart’s easy-to-digest formula is made with no corn syrup, maltodextrin, or soy, and is FDA-approved and has been issued the Clean Label Project’s Purity Award. Combining next-to-breast milk benefits and certified cleanest ingredients, ByHeart’s rigorously researched formula means parents don’t have to choose one or the other.

 

Bobbie Organic Formula

$48

Bobbie is a mom-founded and led infant formula company. Their “European style” recipe meets U.S. FDA requirements, and is everything we wanted in a formula for our own babies — simple and evolved. Bobbie doesn’t use corn syrup, fillers, palm oil, or other ingredients we wouldn’t consume ourselves. Every ingredient is purposefully sourced and is designed to nourish your little one.