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Parents struggle with baby formula shortage

Kylie Salkeld feeds her 1-month-old daugher MaKayla at her home in Cabot. Seb Foltz/Butler Eagle
HARD TO FIND

When Cabot mom Kylie Salkeld visits the grocery store to get baby formula for her 1-month-old daughter, more often than not she’s expecting disappointment.

“We go from store to store, and every time we go to a store, we look at the shelves, and either it’s immediately heartbreaking, or it's ‘well, I can get one can,’ and then we can go to the next store and see if we can get another can,” she said.

Like other moms in Butler County, Salkeld is searching for a product that has become increasingly hard to find as a nationwide baby formula shortage drags on.

Fueled by larger supply chain problems and a February recall of some baby formula products made by Abbott Nutrition — which included Similac, Alimentum and EleCare baby formula — the scarcity of formula is causing moms, such as Salkeld, to travel long distances to find food for their infants.

Kylie Salkeld feeds her 1-month-old daugher MaKayla at her home in Cabot. Seb Foltz/Butler Eagle

“The other day, we went to five different stores before we were able to find what we were able to get to last us until we can go to another store to find more,” Salkeld said.

On Tuesday, U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Robert Califf said the FDA is “doing everything in (its) power” to ease the shortage.

“We recognize that many consumers have been unable to access infant formula and critical medical foods they are accustomed to using and are frustrated by their inability to do so,” he said in a statement. “Ensuring the availability of safe, sole-source nutrition products like infant formula is of the utmost importance to the FDA. Our teams have been working tirelessly to address and alleviate supply issues and will continue doing everything within our authority to ensure the production of safe infant formula products.”

A stressful search

Salkeld said she has traveled to the Giant Eagle at Clearview Mall, and to Sam’s Club and Target in Butler, and has asked friends to check for formula at stores as far away as Kittanning in Armstrong County.

“We have people looking so that we don’t have to drive all over the state,” she said. “There is a Facebook group called Butler Moms, and every day, that’s all you see, pictures of formula shelves in every store.

Kylie Salkeld prepares formula for her 1-month-old daugher MaKayla at her home in Cabot. Seb Foltz/Butler Eagle

“It kind of helps. You know that, OK, they don’t have it there. I don’t have to make a trip there and get upset to look at the shelves.”

Salkeld’s daughter, MaKayla, goes through a 12-ounce can of formula every week and a half to two weeks, Salkeld said. But the older infants get, the more they eat.

“She’s getting older, and she's going to start eating more, so we could end up going through a can every two to three days,” Salkeld said.

Cans of formula have become more expensive, along with the shortage, Salkeld said.

Kylie Salkeld gives her baby MaKayla to her husband, Chris Salkeld. Seb Foltz/Butler Eagle

“The formula prices are through the roof,” she said. “A can of formula could be $20 for 12 ounces. We were able to find some in Giant Eagle, and it was $23 a can. You’re paying ridiculous prices, for such a small amount, that you can’t even find. It’s very heartbreaking at this time."

The struggle to find formula has proved frustrating, she added.

“I don’t know whether to cry or be angry, but you can’t be angry, because it’s not the store’s fault,” Salkeld said. “It’s just so hard.”

A snowballing problem

Doug Sprankle, of Sprankle’s Neighborhood Market in Saxonburg, said the difficulty of finding formula may have been worsened by widespread panic and bulk-buying.

“When there’s an uptick in purchases and people start buying more than they normally would, it puts a strain on the supply chain,” Sprankle said. “A lot of it has to do with social media and word-of-mouth. People get freaked out, and instead of just buying one or two jars, they might buy a whole case.”

In his experience, when shortages rocket to new heights due to bulk buying, it takes some time for things to stabilize.

Baby formula at Sprankle’s Neighborhood Market in Saxonburg. Seb Foltz/Butler Eagle

“What we’ve been seeing with other categories — it’s one of the things where when people get enough in their inventory, they stop buying it, and the supply chain starts to catch up,” he said. “It usually takes a of couple weeks for it to catch up, and people can help that by only buying as much as they need.”

Sprankle, who also is a new parent, said even he has had trouble finding formula for his child.

“I would ask people to only buy as much as they need for their baby at a time,” he said. “We recently had our first child, and, so, as a new parent, it’s hard to find. We try to only buy one or two, that way, other people have opportunities, as well.”

He has heard from local mothers that have had trouble getting their child’s specific formula. Supply from warehouse suppliers is hit-or-miss, he added, depending on what is in stock.

“I feel really bad for the people who are struggling with it,” he said. “Baby formula is one of those things where you really can’t substitute it, so it really puts a strain on mothers.”

Baby formula at Sprankle’s Neighborhood Market in Saxonburg. Seb Foltz/Butler Eagle
Switching products

Jessica Rovito of West Sunbury, whose 9-month-old daughter Layla primarily was fed Similac formula before the shortage, also has had rough luck finding formula.

“She was so sensitive that (Similac) was the only one she did well with,” Rovito said. “I’ve always purchased a few cans ahead, so I wasn’t super worried about it at the beginning, because I was stocked up, no big deal.

“Then, I did switch over to the Sam’s Club brand at one point, because I was looking at the ingredients, and they were pretty much the same thing. Now, I can’t even find that anywhere. I have about half a canister left, and now I’m starting to panic a little bit.”

Rovito said she has traveled “all around Butler” looking for formula and that many other new moms she knows are having similar issues.

“I have eight friends that had a baby within this past year, and we’re all kind of in the same boat,” she said. “It’s definitely a really big struggle for all of us.”

Rovito got a number of samples of formula from her pediatrician, but all but one of the brands were types that she originally had tried when her daughter was a newborn.

“We’re going to give it a go now that she is 9 months old, and see how it works,” Rovito said. “I haven’t had to dive into those yet, because I have half a canister yet, but as soon as we’re out of that, we’re going to have to give it a go and try out different brands and see what sits well with her.”

Some formulas, she said, have given her daughter stomach issues.

“If I try a kind that isn’t sitting well with her, it really could ruin the whole day,” Rovito said. “She’s not going to be feeling well, might be spitting up a lot, and we’ll probably be up a lot more during the night. If it sits alright with her, it still may take a full week or two until she becomes accustomed to it.”

Advice for switching

Dr. Richard Filiaggi, hospitalist in the pediatric department at Butler Health System, said most babies will not have major problems switching formula brands.

“A lot of moms admittedly do get nervous if they are asked to change their baby’s formula, but if they are on normal formula, it is not a big deal,” he said. “If they even have any belly upset from changing formulas, it should be short-lived.”

For parents worried about switching brands, he said, mixing the old formula with the new brand can help ease the transition on their infant.

Watering down a formula, however, can be “dangerous,” he cautioned.

“The formulas are for nutrition, but at the same time, they’re also designed, and that type of feeding is designed, knowing that the baby’s kidneys aren’t working in full functioning yet,” he said. “The balance has to be correct so that the baby doesn’t become low in their electrolytes. An adult or a toddler can handle those kinds of things, but not a less-than-1-year-old. It is important to use the formulas as directed.”

For parents who are using special allergy-free formula brands that can be harder to find, Filiaggi suggested reaching out to their pediatricians.

“They should use their pediatrician as their first point of contact if they’re finding that they cannot find that special formula, and go from there,” he said. “Because those special formulas aren’t used as frequently, there are often samples of that in their doctor's office, so that’s a great first place to go.”

He echoed Sprankle’s comments that bulk buying will not help in the end, and mentioned that he has heard of some stores limiting the amount of formula that can be bought at once.

"If you want to have two months of supply in your cupboard, you may have to accept two weeks right now while supplies build up,” he said. “It helps the whole community. (It’s) just like how we ran out of toilet paper before because people panicked.”

Baby formula at Sprankle’s Neighborhood Market in Saxonburg. Seb Foltz/Butler Eagle