ST. PETERSBURG — When Dominique Dudley returned to her job at a middle school in January after giving birth to her son Amir, she faced a dilemma common to working mothers. She couldn’t pump breast milk during work, and waking up at night to do it was exhausting. It also took a toll on her mental health: She realized she was conflating milk production with self-worth.
She hadn’t planned on using baby formula before she gave birth. But for a while after the switch, it kept Amir full, calmed her mind and made it a little easier to be a working mom.
That is no longer the case. Now Amir’s parents and parents across the U.S. are grappling with a national shortage of baby formula.
Dudley started seeing news stories about the shortage as it took hold this spring. It hit home when formula started disappearing from her Instacart orders. Then she found herself staring at bare shelves in a Walmart.
“There was nothing,” said Dudley, 30.
Driven in part by the pandemic’s effects on supply chains, the shortage has been exacerbated by the February shutdown of a major manufacturing plant in Michigan, after the deaths of two babies tied to tainted formula sparked a recall.
In the first full week of May, the nationwide out-of-stock rate for formula hit 43 percent, according to the retail tracker Datasembly. President Joe Biden this week announced a coordinated effort to boost the nation’s supply.
“Breastfeeding isn’t possible for all families,” said Rachel Dawkins, the medical director of the Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine Clinics at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg. “This is just one more added stress that families are already feeling, between (the) pandemic and inflation and things going on in the world.
“It’s just a big cascade of terribleness.”
‘Down to his last can’
The shortage has become a nightmare for families reliant on formula.
“You can’t privilege yourself out of this crisis,” Dudley said.
But the circumstances that lead families to opt for formula, health experts and advocates say, make them especially vulnerable to this shortage, whether it’s a low-income family reliant on WIC benefits or a family whose child has medical conditions that require a specific, specialized formula.
Florida mothers are particularly at risk because so many use formula. The state has some of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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Moms are turning to each other for help. In Facebook groups from St. Petersburg to Land O’ Lakes, they’ve set up mutual-aid systems. Some ask if anyone has or has seen a particular formula in stores; others post when they see a well-stocked shelf at a Target.
Steffany Rodriguez-Neely, who runs the Tampa Bay Moms Group, said some local moms have offered free formula to the 8,000-member Facebook group she moderates because — despite the shortage — companies keep mailing unsolicited samples.
In one group, a member asked for help finding a specific formula, then posted an update: The baby’s grandparents finally found some in Georgia and planned to drive it to Land O’ Lakes. In another, someone jumped at the chance to get a can of formula — even though it was among the brands recalled earlier this year.
“This family is unsure where her next meal is coming from,” one user wrote in a Tampa group.
“My nephew is down to his last can,” another poster said. “This is the only brand he can hold down.”
Parents are scared and desperate, Rodriguez-Neely said. Nobody in her group has posted about their child missing meals yet, but she doubts families would want to disclose that information — parents may fear the authorities will take their kids away if they can’t feed them. Some, she knows, may turn to online sellers charging exorbitant prices for secondhand formula.
“They’re going to put themselves into financial hardship trying to get formula for their kids,” she said. “If we don’t get this resolved, particularly with kids with special needs … we’re going to see them suffering the most.”
More than 50,000 new and expectant mothers and young children in the Tampa Bay area were served by federal WIC benefits last year, according to the Florida Department of Health.
Those benefits are distributed through each county’s state health office. In the WIC system, distributing agencies contract with manufacturers and determine which brands WIC recipients are allowed to buy with their benefits; the agencies, in turn, get a rebate from the manufacturers.
Dawkins worries WIC’s strict guidelines will make the formula shortage especially brutal for families who rely on those benefits. The state Department of Health offices in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties do not contract with Abbott Nutrition, the company whose products were recalled. Both offices declined to allow their local WIC officials to speak to the Tampa Bay Times.
Some babies, depending on their age and health, can also eat complementary foods such as purees, Dawkins said, which can take some pressure off families. Other babies may be able to adapt to store-brand formulas, which are affected by the shortage but may be more available than name-brands. But many speciality brands have no equivalent, and she fears that desperate families will try to get through the shortage by diluting the formula.
That tactic is dangerous, she said, and can result in malnutrition and electrolyte imbalance. She and her colleagues are bracing for a possible uptick in failure-to-thrive cases — when an infant’s weight falls behind children of similar ages — as a consequence.
“We’re going to see over time that the baby isn’t gaining weight,” she said. “I think this is a problem that will probably pop up in the near future.”
‘Is this going to get any better?’
Dominique Dudley said the switch to formula was, at the time, the right thing for her family, her job and her mental health. But for months she still questioned her choice, even before the formula crisis.
Now she has to take an hour away from her job as an instructional staff developer at Bay Point Middle School to search stores, ask family and friends to be on the lookout for Enfamil, and cope with stress and self-doubt.
Baby Amir, of course, knows nothing of the crisis: He’s just the sweet, happy boy who’s “very serious about mealtime,” the mother said. He recently started rolling over. He likes pureed carrots and sweet potatoes.
He has five months left on formula. Sometimes his mother imagines what she would do if she could get enough formula to last that long.
“It’s selfish to try to stock up five months of formula,” Dudley said. “But is this going to get any better?”