An anonymous survey of 99 U.S. parents found that nearly half of them practiced unsafe feeding methods during the 2022 baby formula shortage. That number is much higher than the 8% of parents who were practicing unsafe methods before the shortage. 

The study was published in June in BMC Pediatrics. Unsafe feeding methods included:

  • Informal sharing of human milk
  • Using expired formula 
  • Using homemade formula 
  • Watering down formula

The survey was conducted by researchers at the University of California, Davis between May 25, 2022, and June 7, 2022, at the midpoint of the baby formula shortage. The largest increase was in the watering down of infant formula. Data showed that 29% of parents used watered down formula, up from 2% before the shortage. In addition, 26% of parents surveyed admitted sharing milk, up from 5%.  

Jennifer Smilowitz, associate director of human studies research at the UC Davis Department of Food Science and Technology, co-authored the study with Karina Cernioglo. Smilowitz told that the statistics they uncovered were “alarming.”

“The infant formula shortage increased food insecurity and threatened the nutrition of millions of American infants,” she said. “Our survey found that parents were not offered many safe alternatives and resorted to unsafe methods in an attempt to feed their infants.”

Dangers of Unsafe Feeding Methods

Unsafe feeding methods can be dangerous and even deadly for infants. Babies need a specific balance of nutrients to properly develop. Altering their daily diet nutritionally, even in the short term, can be detrimental to an infant.

“So too much or too little of anything could actually be dangerous to their developing systems,” Smilowitz explained. “For example, watering down infant formula is unsafe because it can result in electrolyte and mineral disturbances.”

Smilowitz added that this practice can introduce nutrient deficiencies if not prepared by a nutritionist.

Some unsafe practices may also lead to the contamination of infant formula, such as using expired formula. Nutrients may degrade, which can interfere with proper infant growth. Sharing human milk can lead to unnecessary health and safety risks since the donor milk isn’t pasteurized.

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2022 Nationwide Baby Formula Shortage

The infant formula shortage was caused by supply chain issues due to the COVID-19 pandemic combined with a major baby formula recall by the largest producer of the product in the country, Abbott Nutrition. The company supplies about 40% of the nation’s baby formula. The voluntary recall of the formula was brought on by contamination with Cronobacter and Salmonella newport bacteria. 

Abbott Nutrition was also forced to shut down its plant in Michigan for about four months after two infants died and several others were sickened by formula tainted with the bacteria. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration found several problems at the plant. That led to new guidelines, studies and regulations.

Many parents have also filed lawsuits against the makers of baby formula, claiming the manufacturers did not warn about the risks of necrotizing enterocolitis, a serious complication for some premature infants who consume cow’s mile formula.

In July 2023, Cronobacter was added to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System. This means the bacteria will be formally tracked by the CDC. States will now be asked to notify the CDC of any Cronobacter infections. The new rule is set to go into effect in 2024.