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The baby formula shortage is the latest blow to parents

In a country with little support for caregivers, parents now can’t find food for their babies

7 min

Maria Murillo planned to breastfeed her baby. He was born early, at 38 weeks, because the amniotic fluid keeping him alive was so low. “I firmly believe that my body either could have made milk, or it could have kept Caleb alive,” she said. “It couldn’t do both.”

After two and a half months of trying to breastfeed, and a long search for a formula that didn’t upset Caleb’s stomach, Murillo and her husband now face a daunting new task: trying to find enough Similac Pro-Total Comfort formula to keep their hungry 5-month-old boy fed. It’s not on shelves in and around Rockville, Md., where she lives; it’s not online. Murillo turned to Facebook Marketplace and “found a woman who hoarded it in New York. I bought 40 bottles from her.” Knowing Caleb would go through that quickly, she bought more from a stranger in Tennessee. She and her husband have reached out to family and friends throughout the United States, asking them to look for the formula, too.

“It just brings me back to this dark place where I felt so inadequate,” Murillo said, crying. “My job as a mom is to feed him, and I couldn’t. And now we’re back to this place where we can’t get him formula.”

Pandemic-related supply chain issues and a February recall by manufacturer Abbott, which makes Similac and other brands of formula, have led to dwindling stock on shelves for months. As of last week, the supply of formula across the country was 43 percent lower than usual.

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About 1 in 4 parents exclusively breastfeed their infants up to the age of 6 months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, meaning most babies are at least partly formula-fed. For many infants, formula is their sole source of food. Empty shelves have prompted terror and desperation among parents, who have had to drive miles, pay outrageous prices and beg online community groups for help.

Many parents feel abandoned — there are senators who didn’t know their constituents’ babies had no food until a reporter asked — at a time of enormous pressure and little support. Women are being advised to “just breastfeed,” as if there’s a switch to turn the milk on. Along with the regular indignities of parenting in the United States, where there is no mandated paid leave and child care is out-of-reach expensive, recent events have provided new ones: There is still no coronavirus vaccine for children under age 5, and new laws restricting abortion could threaten treatment for a miscarriage.

A formula shortage is fraught for a lot of mothers, partly because breastfeeding is fraught. Many mothers want to breastfeed, or feel obligated to breastfeed, or feel that they’re not “mother” enough if they don’t breastfeed. But there are many reasons it doesn’t work, including a society that doesn’t allow mothers enough time at home after birth before they return to work. The needle has moved a bit from “Breast is Best” to “Fed is Best,” but neither trite saying, now that formula is not easily available, is easy.

“You have responsibilities that come with being a new parent that are tremendous, and now you have the inability to feed your child,” Murillo said. “It just kind of seems like everything is piling on.”

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To Jamie Lee Marks, “it feels like a coordinated attack” against new parents.

Marks gave birth in a mask during the pandemic. She had no paid leave because her son was born in late August instead of Oct. 1, the one-year mark that would allow leave to kick in at the federal agency where she worked. Instead, she used up most of her sick leave to stay home with her newborn for 12 weeks. And then Marks quit her job for another, because she was so angry.

Now, despite driving 40 minutes each way so she and her husband could put their son in a small, safe day care, her son has been sick off and on for seven weeks, since people stopped wearing masks in public, Marks said. She’s now hoping she doesn’t have to go back to the office until he’s vaccinated. Her son is now 20 months old, and he’s grown out of the formula he needed to survive. She is donating her leftover, unopened cans to anyone who can use it. “I can’t imagine” adding a formula shortage on top of everything, she said. “I feel like parents [of children] under 5 have been forgotten by everyone.”

Mac Jaehnert’s daughter, MacKenzie, was born just six months into his wife’s pregnancy. She was airlifted from their home in eastern Washington to Seattle, where she remained in the NICU for four months. MacKenzie could only have one kind of formula when she returned home March 21, and it was nowhere to be found. “Last week, I hit six grocery stores in one day,” Jaehnert said. “You shouldn’t have to play the game of basically calling every store like you’re trying to get a new PS5, when you’re just trying to get food for your child.”

Jaehnert and his wife have spent hours looking for formula in Seattle, where their daughter still has appointments. His wife is on a Facebook page for local moms, and she received formula donations from another parent whose child was graduating to solid foods. They’ve also recruited family in other parts of the country to look for it. Jaehnert’s dad showed up recently with a present for Mother’s Day: six cans of Neosure formula he brought from Milwaukee.

“We have this kind of medically fragile child,” he said. “And I spent more of my paternity leave than I care to think about chasing around stores looking for formula, rather than spending time with my kid. My wife, it makes her feel guilty for not being able to breastfeed and provide for our child. It’s a really emotional issue for us.”

Murillo said she’s still “luckier than most.” She has a friend who only had three weeks off after her baby was born, but Murillo was able to have five months and one week of leave from her full-time job as a managing paralegal. And yet she still feels like she’s not doing enough. “Some people choose to feed formula from the get-go. That wasn’t what I wanted,” Murillo said. “You have those dark thoughts that you’re being a bad parent. And now you’re failing him again.”

Amy Mello has been trying to help her sister find formula where they live in North Texas. Mello is due to have her second child “any day now” and also realizes she may be in trouble. Her first son, now 3, had severe allergies and required Puramino formula. She recently looked online to see if it was available in case her second child had the same needs, but it’s sold out. She found four cans on one resale site for $500. (It’s usually about $45 per container.) Depending on the baby’s age, that will last two to three weeks.

After raising their first child in a pandemic, “we waited to have another one, and thought things were getting back to normal. And now it’s like, we really don’t have any formula,” Mello said. “I don’t recall there being issue after issue when my mom was having kids. It’s not like there was any better support from the rest of the country — no parental leave or anything that other countries have. But at least they didn’t have formula shortages.”

Mello said she has friends who say they don’t want to have children at all. “I’m just like good, don’t do it unless you really want to,” she said. “Because parenting is great, but the systems in place to help raise children currently feel broken, making it feel even harder than it should be on parents.”

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