MILL CREEK — For Kari Bonallo, feeding her baby with formula isn’t a choice.
“It’s a necessity,” she said. The mother of two said she could never produce enough breast milk to feed her children.
“My children would starve without formula,” she said.
Now, the baby formula sections at many local stores are nearly bare, a result of nationwide supply chain problems and a safety recall. The government has taken steps to ease the shortages, but there is no quick fix.
Bonallo, 37, of Mill Creek, said her 3-month-old daughter needs a special hypoallergenic formula because of health issues. Switching her to another kind isn’t an option.
“It’s really, really scary when you can’t find the formula you are looking for,” Bonallo said.
Paige Youngren, of Marysville, has searched from “Marysville to Woodinville or Seattle” to find the special high-calorie formula for her 7-week-old premature twins.
“It has been so stressful and hard,” she said in an email. Her doctor recommended she switch the babies to another type of formula.
For help, many moms have turned to family and friends, and to other mothers in social media groups.
Bonallo’s sister signed up to get notifications every time a Walmart formula shipment came in so she could immediately buy it before it sold out. Her mother and father have also helped.
“It takes a village,” she said.
Prices are up. Bonallo said she recently paid $166 for five small cans of formula. She would normally pay the same price for five larger cans.
She has had a lot of emotions.
“It’s a primal fear to not be able to feed your kid,” she said. “I have to feed my kid. It’s survival.”
The shortages have also created stress for expecting moms.
Amanda Strandlof, of Everett, is 37 weeks pregnant with her third child. She said the formula shortages are putting intense pressure on her to breastfeed.
She formula-fed her first two children and chose not to breastfeed for personal reasons.
“I’m now considering trying it,” Strandlof wrote in an email. “But it’s not ideal to deal with this so late in my pregnancy.”
Supply disruptions during the COVID-19 pandemic, along with a safety recall at a factory in Sturgis, Michigan, have contributed to bare shelves, the Associated Press reported.
In February, Abbott Nutrition recalled several popular formula brands amid an investigation into four babies who were sickened after consuming products from the facility. Two died.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration found problems with the company’s food safety practices. On Monday, the government reached a deal with Abbott to reopen the Michigan plant, as long as the facility meets safety guidelines.
Production could restart within two weeks, the AP reported. However, it may take another six to 10 weeks to replenish grocery store shelves.
The United States will also allow more imports of baby formula from foreign manufacturers to ease shortages.
In the meantime, parents have taken matters into their own hands. A group called Snohomish County Mothers of Multiples is helping moms with twins and triplets find formula. In a private Facebook group, moms post to the page anywhere they find product, or they ask for what they need, said Shirley Briones, a group member from Mount Vernon, and a mother of twins and an 11-week-old.
“When we find it, we are buying it and figuring out drop offs or mailing it if we live far apart,” she said in an email.
Briones said many multiples are born premature and require special formulas for weight gain.
“Without the formula specified for these babies, they will simply not get the nutrients they require to thrive,” she said. “It is a very scary position to be in.”
The group’s website is snomoms.org.
The Northwest Mothers Milk Bank has received a “significant increase” in calls from prospective donors, said Joanne Ransom, clinical director of the nonprofit milk bank.
The organization provides breast milk to infants who need it, especially those who are premature and medically fragile, Ransom said. She said the milk bank isn’t set up to provide parents with the volume of milk needed during the formula shortages. However, donors can make a difference.
“The act of donating can overall help the availability of safe, pasteurized human milk for families who might need an alternative,” she said.
There are 45 milk drop locations throughout the Pacific Northwest, including at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett. Prospective donors can call 503-469-0955 for more information.
Pediatricians weigh in
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding as a baby’s sole nutrition source for six months and breastfeeding with solid foods until 12 months or older.
For parents using formula, the association strongly advises against homemade baby formulas because “they are not safe and do not meet your baby’s nutritional needs,” according to an article from pediatrician Dr. Steven Abrams. Watering down formula is also not safe.
The article had several suggestions to help parents in search of formula. They can call smaller stores or drug stores to check for products if larger ones are out of stock; buy online from established distributors or pharmacies; and check social media groups.
It’s OK to switch most babies to any available formula, Abrams wrote. Parents should ask their pediatricians about alternatives to speciality formulas.
Infants six months or older on regular formula can be fed whole cow’s milk for a brief period of time, he continued. The option should not become routine. “However, it is a better option than diluting formula or making homemade formula,” he said.
In Snohomish County, Sea Mar Community Health Centers is helping participants in the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Nutrition Program access formula. The program serves pregnant women, new and breastfeeding moms, and children under 5 on the lower-end of the income spectrum.
The program has expanded formula options for WIC clients amid the shortages, according to an employee who declined to give their name. Breastfeeding support, including breast pumps, is also available.
Help for parents
The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services has put together a list of community resources for parents affected by formula shortages.
• Locate your nearest Community Action Agency. Your neighborhood CAA may be able to provide you with formula or connect you with local agencies that have formula in stock.
• Dial 2-1-1 to be connected to a community resource specialist with Volunteers of America Western Washington who can help identify food pantries and other charitable sources of local infant formula and baby food.
• Call your local food bank to ask whether they have infant formula and other supplies in stock.
• Via the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, certain accredited milk banks are distributing donated breast milk to mothers in need. Please note that some may require a prescription from a medical professional.