For the first months of her life, Ashley Strom’s daughter seemed uncomfortable much of the time — vomiting frequently, squirming with acid reflux and sleeping poorly.
She was diagnosed as having a cow’s milk protein intolerance. Strom tried a dairy-free diet while breastfeeding, but it seemed that even the smallest, hidden amount of dairy bothered her daughter Chloe’s stomach. She then switched her daughter to formula, trying two types before finally finding one that agreed with her called PurAmino.
“As soon as we tried that formula, pretty immediately, we started to see some improvement and, within two weeks, she was like a new baby,” said Strom, of Northbrook, Illinois. She was relieved to see Chloe smiling and comfortable.
But in recent weeks, amid a nationwide shortage of baby formula, PurAmino hasn’t always been easy to find. At one point, Strom was checking stores’ websites for the formula four or five times a day, and took to Facebook to ask if people had any to spare.
“Knowing it directly correlates to my whole family’s happiness and my daughter’s health, it’s filled me with tons of anxiety,” Strom said.
For months, many types of formulas have been tough to find partly because of supply chain issues and a recall of certain formulas made by Illinois-based Abbott Laboratories. Abbott has recalled those formulas amid an investigation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has said it is looking into complaints of Cronobacter sakazakii infections among four babies who reportedly consumed powdered infant formula made at an Abbott facility in Sturgis, Michigan. All four were hospitalized, and Cronobacter may have contributed to two babies’ death, according to the FDA.
Abbott said in a statement, “A thorough review of all available data indicates that the infant formula produced at our Sturgis facility is not likely the source of infection in the reported cases and that there was not an outbreak caused by products from the facility.”
Nationwide, about 40% of formulas were out-of-stock at local stores over the last two weeks, according to Datasembly, a company that scrapes data from retailers’ publicly available websites and apps to gauge product availability. That’s compared with only about 2% to 8% being out-of-stock nationwide during the first half of 2021.
As a result, many grocery stores and retail pharmacy chains, including Jewel-Osco, Walgreens and CVS Health are now limiting how much formula people can buy at once.
Formula manufacturers say they are attempting to improve the situation. Abbott said in a statement that it’s “prioritizing production of infant formula products to help replenish the supply in the market and are also air shipping in product from our FDA-registered facility in Cootehill, Ireland, on a daily basis.” Enfamil, a formula brand made by a different manufacturer, said on its website it’s been shipping 30% more product to meet increased demand.
Still, the shortage has left parents from all walks of life searching for certain types of formulas or switching brands and hoping for the best. About one-fourth of babies born in the U.S. in 2018 were exclusively breast fed for the first six months of their lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — meaning most infants drink formula, either to supplement breast milk or in place of it.
“It’s kind of scary to walk into a store when you have a baby that that’s their prime source of nutrition,” said Alex Goodfellow, executive director of Share Our Spare, an organization that helps supply Chicago-area nonprofits with essentials for young children, such as diapers, wipes and formula. “It’s nerve-wracking to think, ‘What am I going to do tomorrow? We’re almost out.’ “
Goodfellow, who has a 15-month-old daughter, remembers over the winter when her daughter was still on formula, having to go to three stores to find basic formula. That’s not something many of the families who rely on Share Our Spare can do, she said. Some areas, particularly on the South and West sides of the city, don’t have many pharmacies or grocery stores.
“I have the ability to do that because I have a car. I don’t have an access issue,” Goodfellow said. “A lot of our families were going into stores and there is an access issue for them — they only have one local Jewel or one local CVS.”
Share Our Spare had to clear a lot of the formula out of its warehouse because of the Abbott recall, Goodfellow said. Thanks to donations, Share Our Spare still has formula on its shelves but not as much as usual, she said.
The shortage can also be serious for children with significant medical issues.
Many children who are treated as part of the Eosinophilic Gastrointestinal Diseases Program at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago rely on formula to meet their nutritional needs, said Dr. Joshua Wechsler, the program’s medical director. Many of those children have a chronic inflammatory disease in which one or more types of food can cause allergic inflammation in the esophagus and were on EleCare Jr, a formula made by Abbott for children ages 1 and older. EleCare is affected by the recall.
In recent months, Wechsler has seen some patients lose weight because they can’t get as much formula as they need, and a few have had to be hospitalized.
Some of the families have been trying to find additional EleCare Jr or alternatives from other companies or through Facebook, while others are paying hundreds of dollars out-of-pocket for it, when it’s normally covered by insurance, on sites such as Amazon and eBay, he said.
“It’s been a pretty big scramble to try to deal with it,” Wechsler said.
It’s been a problem, as well, for many parents whose children don’t have special medical needs. The FDA has said parents should never dilute formula, use homemade formula or buy imported formula online, as it could be counterfeit. If a baby or child’s regular formula isn’t available, the FDA advises parents to talk with their pediatricians for recommendations.
Brooke Carlson’s 8-month-old daughter had been doing well drinking Similac Pro-Advance. But Carlson realized in mid-April, shortly before going out of town, that she needed more so she wouldn’t run out after she returned home.
She called multiple CVS stores and tried Instacart and Target but couldn’t find it anywhere. She went on Facebook and posted to see if anyone had extra. Similac is one of the formulas affected by Abbott’s recall.
Carlson’s pediatrician suggested she try similar formulas, such as one sold at Costco. She was hesitant to switch brands, knowing that her daughter reacted well to the Similac. “They might spit up more or get fussy, and no one wants to do that,” she said of switching.
But she bought the formula at Costco, and her daughter drank it with no problem, to her relief.
“It causes you a lot of anxiety,” said Carlson, of Northbrook, Illinois. “You have to find a solution.”
Strom, whose daughter has a cow’s milk protein intolerance, also found a type of solution. She searched websites fervently for stores that had PurAmino in-stock and bought enough so she now has more on-hand. Yet she doesn’t want to buy too much and make it harder for other families in the same position.
In her home, the formula is a necessity.
“I could always tell she was sweet and see her real demeanor, but now you can really tell what kind of baby she is,” she said of her daughter. “To see your kid go from struggling every day to smiling and being able to play, it was life-changing for us.”