National Infant Formula Shortage Highlights Gaps in Family Support

July 15, 2022

Our nation has been inundated this week with panicked headlines and social media posts regarding a national shortage of infant formula caused by contamination issues at an Abbott facility that produces much of the Similac brand, in addition to several others for the U.S. market.

Though California is faring better than other places in the U.S., the shortages are still of concern to us. 

In California, 23.7 percent of breastfed infants are leaving the hospital already supplemented with infant formula and 6.3 percent of infants are fully supported by infant formula (California In-Hospital Breastfeeding Data, 2019). Three months after birth, the rate of formula supplementation among California infants increases to 66.5 percent (CDPH Maternal and Infant Health Assessment Survey, 2016-2018).

Infant formula is in high demand in the Golden State.

Regardless of how much formula is actually available in the U.S. right now, seeing bare shelves at grocery stores is scary for anyone but downright terrifying for families who use formula.

The California Breastfeeding Coalition is disappointed to see the national conversation on this feeding emergency reduced to a war between breastfeeding and formula-feeding, with desperate families being caught in the middle.

The last thing any family needs right now is shame or judgment, especially when the system at large is responsible for unnecessary formula use.

To borrow words from past Board President Ifeyinwa Asiodu’s Twitter thread on the subject, this consumer shortage was inevitable and only highlights problems that have existed for decades. This shortage also reinforces the fact that infant feeding is a reproductive justice issue and if not properly addressed, the most marginalized in our communities will suffer the most. 

The question right now is what do we do about it?

First and foremost, we must help where we can. Consider the following ideas:

  • Encourage families who rely on infant formula to apply to the WIC program. About half of all births in California are in families who qualify for the WIC program, and WIC offices are staffed by individuals with close ties to their communities. They often have information you won’t see mentioned in the media.
  • Find out what resources exist in your community and share those resources widely. If you see infant formula in stock when you’re shopping, make it known within your network. Contact your local public health department to learn more about their family-centered services and resources.
  • Encourage lactating mothers to share fresh or frozen surplus milk with families in need. Depending on personal comfort, community milk-sharing and donating to nonprofit milk banks like Mothers Milk Bank San Jose or UC Health Milk Bank are options that will reduce unnecessary formula use.
  • Debunk myths you encounter. Please discourage families from trying to make their own formula at home, watering down formula to make it last longer, using expired formula, or substituting fresh fluid or canned cow, goat or plant-based milk for formula.
  • Offer to support families that are feeding a combination of breastmilk and formula in increasing their milk supply to reduce their need for breastmilk substitutes.
  • Prioritize bedside lactation support to every new parent in the hospital. Ensure that hospitals have the lactation support expertise to support new parents.
  • Strengthen connections between hospitals and community-based lactation services in your community. We can’t let families wanting to provide human milk to their babies be left without support.

The California Breastfeeding Coalition is committed to improving the health and well-being of all Californians. We will continue to address the systemic and structural barriers that impact human milk feeding and lactation, while advocating for better infant feeding resources and support for families. This is a reproductive justice issue. As founders of that movement have stated – and we agree – all families have the right to parent their children in safe and healthy environments.