Homemade infant formula not safe, say health officials
BRATTLEBORO - As news of coronavirus-related shortages of some staples like toilet paper and cleaning supplies has emerged, so have fears about potential shortages of infant formula. That fear has led some to share unsafe advice on social media about making homemade baby formula or diluting FDA-approved formula to make it last longer. Health officials say there is no shortage of formula and have issued strong warnings against homemade or diluted baby formula, saying both carry major health risks to infants.
“Please do not trust social media posts that share recipes for homemade infant formula, or tips for how to dilute it,” read a Facebook post from the Vermont Department of Health Brattleboro Local Health Office, released last week. “Prepare infant formula according to instructions on the container. Vermont WIC is working with stores to ensure that WIC-authorized infant formula is available.”
Only certain formulas are available to those who are enrolled in WIC. Brooke Robinson, a Brattleboro-based public health nutritionist for the Vermont Department of Health, says that WIC is required to contract with one manufacturer for baby formula.
“Vermont WIC is required by federal regulation to have a formula contract in place for cost containment,” she says. “The current contract is for Gerber formula. Infants enrolled in WIC that are formula fed are provided with one of their three main types of formula — Good Start Gentle, Good Start Soy, or Good Start Soothe.”
As a result, she says, with the exception of special doctor-prescribed circumstances, WIC cannot cover the cost of other baby formulas. “WIC must adhere to federal regulations and is not allowed to provide standard infant formula outside of the contract brand formulas covered under the contract,” says Robinson.
Robinson says she hasn’t received a lot of communication from parents about WIC-approved formula not being available locally.
“Only a few parents have expressed difficulty with finding infant formula in our local stores,” she says. “According to manufacturers, there is not a shortage. We understand that the challenge pertains to supply chain stress and keeping grocery store shelves stocked.”
Still, state health officials are engaging regularly with retailers to ensure that WIC-authorized formula remains available to those who need it.
“State WIC staff are in close contact with all the WIC grocers throughout the state,” says Robinson. “WIC grocers are required to stock a minimum inventory of WIC brand formula. WIC has asked grocers to keep the minimum inventory of WIC formula set aside and to post signage in the infant formula section of the store to direct WIC families to the customer service desks if they do not find product on the shelf.”
She says families who are not enrolled in WIC may help preserve WIC-approved stocks for those who are by buying different brands for the time being.
“Families that are not enrolled in WIC can consider purchasing other brands or types of products that are not WIC-eligible,” she says. “Many items in the store are labeled with shelf tags, indicating that they are WIC-eligible.”
Robinson says that whether a family is enrolled in WIC or not, they should know that, other than breastmilk, there are no safe alternatives to FDA-approved baby formula. The FDA closely regulates infant formula and has specifications for it across brands, which include minimum amounts for 29 nutrients and maximum amounts for nine of those nutrients.
“The potential problems associated with errors in selecting and combining the ingredients for the formula are very serious and range from severe nutritional imbalances to unsafe products that can harm infants,” says a page dedicated to baby formula from the FDA. “Because of these potentially very serious health concerns, FDA does not recommend that consumers make infant formulas at home.”
In addition to recommending only FDA-approved formulas, the American Academy of Pediatrics warns against watering down formula in an attempt to make it last longer.
“FDA-approved infant formula is designed for just the correct amount of nutrition as described by the label,” it said in a paper published about the use of infant formula. “Adding extra water decreases and dilutes the nutrients and may cause serious growth problems or imbalances in vital nutrients like salt that can lead to serious health problems.”
Social media posts have also spread a rumor that formula manufacturers will ship a box of formula to parents for free if they call the customer service number on the back of a can of formula.
“This is a false rumor,” says Gerber’s website. “While we are not providing free product, we are continuing to make our products as affordable as possible for families. We are doing everything we can, operating seven days a week, to produce more formula, food, and beverages to help stores restock as soon as possible.”
Robinson says that misinformation about WIC benefits is also currently circulating social media. “We urge families to continue checking WIC’s webpage for the most accurate information about important program changes,” she says.
Though Robinson says no formula shortages are anticipated, for those who receive WIC benefits, WIC offices are available to answer questions or to assist.
“WIC is committed to providing families with continued support now and in the days ahead,” she says. “Vermont WIC is open and most services are being done by phone appointment to align with social distancing efforts.”
Residents of Dover, Wilmington, Halifax, Wardsboro, Whitingham, Marlboro, and Jacksonville are covered by WIC’s Brattleboro office, which can be reached at (802) 257-2880. Readsboro and Searsburg are covered by the Bennington office, which can be reached at (802) 447-3531.
Robinson says most children under age 5 who are covered by Dr. Dynasaur are also likely income-eligible for WIC. Those who are not currently enrolled can enroll by visiting https://www.healthvermont.gov/children-youth-families/wic/apply or by texting VTWIC to 855-11.
Families who are not income eligible for WIC but have concerns about getting formula, diapers, and other necessities during the pandemic can call 2-1-1 for assistance.