Each day, Holly Strickland of Milford opens the Target app and checks if there is any baby formula in stock for her 3-month-old son.
If there is, she will order a couple for pickup. But when she’s in the store, the formula section is only about 5% stocked, she said.
“It’s so, so awful,” Ms. Strickland said. “Put it into perspective like this: If we walked into a grocery store and 95% of our food was not available, there would be an uproar. That’s what the equivalent is. This is for our babies, and they have to eat. It’s very stressful. I want all the babies to be safe and have adequate nutrition.”
Delaware is one of seven states whose out-of-stock levels for baby formula are above 40%, according to Datasembly, a retail data-collection firm. It reports that the national out-of-stock level reached 31% in April.
“Delaware is experiencing a formula supply shortage, similar to states throughout the country,” said Dr. Helen Arthur, the Delaware Division of Public Health’s section chief for health promotion and disease prevention. “The shortage is due to supply chain issues and complicated by the Abbott formula recall, which began in February and shut down the nation’s top-supplying plant.”
Dr. Arthur said state health officials are working on communication to families, pediatricians and others about the shortage. DPH’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) previously reached out to its clients and pediatricians about the Abbott Nutrition recall, which impacted WIC families because the recalled formula was on the program’s approved list.
She said DPH suggests that those struggling to find baby formula should first check the manufacturer’s website for its availability before going to a store. Additionally, DPH recommends that infants be fed smaller portions more frequently to reduce wasting formula.
Dr. Arthur also said parents could choose a different formula, after checking with their pediatrician.
They should not attempt to make their own formula, water down formula or use milk from any animals or plants, such as cow milk, goat milk, soy milk or almond milk, said Beacon Pediatrics’ Dr. Erin Fletcher, the pediatrics department chair for Beebe Healthcare.
“The plant-based or the animal milks are not a safe replacement,” she said. “Watering down formula to stretch it out is also not safe for the infants. I just highly encourage people, if they can’t find it, to contact their physician, who can help them to find replacements or possibly even get it from reps or with samples in their office.”
Last summer, there were also several shortages in formula due to supply chain issues, but things have gotten much worse since February, when Abbott Nutrition announced it was recalling select lots of Similac, Alimentum and EleCare formulas, said Caroline Swift, assistant professor of operations management at the University of Delaware.
She said not only did this mean Abbott had to pull formula off shelves, but it also had to focus its resources on operating issues. The company was forced to shut down its entire plant for an investigation, which affected new production and distribution times.
The baby formula industry was hit so hard, Ms. Swift said, because it’s usually such a stable product. There’s not normally any kind of volatility in the demand for formula because there is always a steady supply of new babies — rates don’t spike during any specific season.
“When you have so much of that supply cut off abruptly, there’s really nothing to fall back on,” Ms. Swift said. “They’re just not built to have disruption in the kind of production and distribution that this industry is a part of. So it’s really devastating when it does happen.”
Dr. Fletcher said her supply of samples has decreased. Her office has not had Similac samples for a couple of months, she said.
Ms. Strickland said her son uses Alimentum, which is currently only available in liquid. It has not been sold in powder since the recall.
Each bottle provides 32 ounces of formula, and her son goes through about 28-30 ounces a day, she said.
She added she starts feeling anxious when she has less than a three-day supply. But so far, she has not run out.
“I’m trying to really actively stay ahead of it and look on the app every day and see if they have anything,” Ms. Strickland said. “If they do, I’ll get like one or two bottles. If they have six, I don’t go in and buy all of them because someone might not have anything for the rest of the day to feed their kid.”