June 15, 2022

The U.S. Infant Formula Shortage Raises Concerns for Infants and Families Alike

For the past months, families across the United States have been grappling with an infant formula shortage—one that U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Robert Califf said could last until July. Sparked by supply chain and staffing issues from the COVID-19 pandemic and a recent recall of formula from the largest infant formula manufacturer in the country, the formula shortage has left many families worried about how they are going to feed their babies.

The Biden administration has taken several steps to curb the effects of the shortage, including announcing in late May that it would be invoking the Defense Production Act, a wartime tool used by presidents to expedite the production of goods and services, to address the shortage. Yet, despite these measures, data for the week of May 28 showed that out-of-stock rates for formula reached 74% nationally, with 10 states reporting out-of-stock rates at 90% or greater.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than half of infants born in 2018 received formula, either exclusively or as a supplement, by the first three months of life. That, combined with the staggering out-of-stock rates, show the potential far-reaching implications of this shortage for children and their families. Beyond the infants whose health could be impacted by the shortage—deprived of necessary nutrients or specific formulas tailored for certain medical conditions or disorders during an important period of development—there could also be harmful effects for parents and caregivers, and specifically for women.

Like so many public health crises in recent years—from the maternal health crisis to the COVID-19 pandemic—the infant formula shortage is having a disproportionate impact on women of color and people living in poverty. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), “Infants in low-income families, infants of color, and infants living in rural communities are more likely to use formula and therefore may be hardest hit by the formula shortage.” In that article, KFF captured how these groups are affected. Key statistics include the following:

Concerns are now being cited about the toll this situation could take on the mental health of parents who rely on formula. Beyond fears about being able to find formula to get their children fed, low-income families may have less time and resources to search for in-stock formula and may not have resources to pay premium prices for supplies, and those in rural areas may have fewer retailers in their proximity. For families who use WIC, who already had limited options for which formulas they could buy, there may be added stress.

For mothers, some are reporting that women are now attempting to find ways to start breastfeeding after they have stopped—regardless of the reason they stopped in the first place. CDC data show that 60 percent of mothers do not breastfeed as long as they intend to. Reasons cited by mothers who stopped breastfeeding early range from issues with lactation and latching to concerns with infant nutrition and weight to unsupportive work policies and lack of parental leave and cultural norms.

While the steps being taken by federal officials and manufacturers will be able to rectify the formula shortage in the short-term, it will not relieve families for weeks to come, nor will it address broader concerns that have been amplified through this shortage—from the formula industry’s consolidation to the public policies that are putting health care inequities on display.

For families navigating the formula shortage, there are resources available. SWHR has included some of them below.