Months after state and federal officials acknowledged significant shortages of infant formula, and promised to work with manufacturers to address the shortfall, cost and supply of formula remain a problem for mothers in Connecticut.
Ashley Manning, a 29-year-old mom living in East Hampton, said that when her 6-month-old son was born in February, the hospital put him on Similac Gentlease formula when he was in the Neonatal ICU.
On February 17, Abbott Nutrition, Similac’s producer, released a recall notice for several of its powdered formulas. The same month it shut down production at a plant in Sturgis, MI.
Six months later, Manning and other mothers say it’s still a struggle to find formula for their children.
The hospital gave Manning a supply of Similac for her son, but when it ran out she had to switch to another brand, Enfamil, because of the recall. She wasn’t able to find the Enfamil she needed anywhere locally.
Cost was another barrier.
Manning receives help from the state’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infant and Children, or WIC, which provides about $43 per can of baby formula. But Manning said she has only been able to use WIC to help with the payments once.
“We go [to the grocery store] a couple times a week and it’s never there. We also check Walgreens,” she said. “It’s, like, crazy. I’ve been shipping it from out of state from people on Facebook.
It’s kind of sketchy.”
Manning said it can cost her $20 more than it would cost her to purchase formula within the state, because shipping is so expensive – and she pays the total cost out of pocket.
“It’s frustrating because getting WIC was a huge help — to help with a formula cost because one box of that formula is about $40,” she said.
Manning said she’s even tried to sign up to receive formula samples from companies, but has yet to receive any.
Amy Casavina Hall, Senior Vice President of Strategic Partnerships, Development & Communications at United Way, said that the state’s 211 call network received over 400 calls in the first three months of 2022 from people needing help with baby formula – whether locating it or asking for help paying for it.
That trend is more than double the number of calls they received about formula during the same period of 2021, and in April, May, and June of this year, the number of calls were equally high.
Connecticut’s WIC program has added additional formula types that it will accept in lieu of the recalled Similac formula. The state Department of Public Health also advises families to reach out to the WIC local offices if they are in need of assistance.
In May, Commissioner Manisha Juthani said in a press release that the department was working with local agencies and with manufacturers to order emergency formula. She also encouraged mothers to breastfeed if possible.
The Department of Public Health did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In Southington, a mother who spoke to CT Examiner and asked not to be named said she had been unable to find the Similac 360 that she needs for her two-week old. She said the stores she goes to are still limiting the amount of formula that people can buy each time.
“If you use a ready to feed (The only version of this formula I can find right now) or can only find a small can that you go through quickly you have to keep making frequent trips to the store,” she explained.
She said she has participated in “formula swaps” — connecting with people online who are willing to exchange one formula brand for another. While she doesn’t have WIC, she also doesn’t want to buy online, she said, because it’s more expensive.
“I’m able to find coupons and I use coupons. So I have to go to the store to use them,” she said.
Jennifer Zarrilli, nutrition manager for the division of clinical nutrition at Connecticut Children’s Hospital, said that she’s seen a particular shortage of amino acid formulas — the formulas that they give to infants with allergies or difficulties digesting normal formula. She said that those babies often have negative reactions to switching between formulas, including diarrhea and vomiting.
Zarrilli said the hospital tries to help the families locate formula, reaching out to pharmacies and home care companies — though many, she said, are not taking new patients.
“It’s been a challenge for our staff to help, especially in the GI clinic,” she said. “[It’s] taken up a lot of their time.”
Zarrilli said that families can also go to the company’s website, search the store locator and request that a store reserve formula.
Jan Ferraro, director of education for the mom and baby division at the Acceleron Health and Wellness Company, which sells pumps and breastfeeding equipment as well as taking milk donations at its Guilford location, said that she has seen more women choosing to breastfeed because of the formula shortage.
“When I see how many breast pumps are being ordered since this has started — every month, it goes up,” she said.
But not all moms are able to rely on breastfeeding.
Manning, who works full-time, said that she had decided on formula feeding before her son was born. She said breastfeeding wasn’t something she wanted to do.
“We just felt, honestly, safer that way, because you were able to — back before all of this happened — just buy the formula,” she said.
Ferraro said that some work policies also make it difficult for women to breastfeed — like not providing an adequate space for women to pump milk, or not positioning their breaks at a time that would align with their body’s schedule for milk production.
“The Connecticut laws are pretty straightforward about providing moms places to pump, but you even see … in some hospitals that they do have a pumping room, but it’s clear on the other side of the hospital,” she said. “We’ve seen teachers pumping in their classrooms and locking the doors so they can pump in their classrooms.”
One positive aspect of the shortage, the mom from Southington pointed out, is the camaraderie that it has brought out among mothers. While formula prices online remain higher than in the stores, she said, most people will give negative reviews when they see price gouging, as a warning to other mothers. She said she sees people’s willingness to share as a “silver lining” of the situation.
“I really feel like it’s really neat how moms have come together to try to figure out ways to make it better, with the formula swaps and being on those websites and trading with one another or sometimes offering extra of what they have, if someone’s really in need,” she said. “It’s kind of a nice example of people coming together.”
Still, it remains a struggle, and it’s not foolproof. On Wednesday, she traveled to a Target to swap out some baby formula.
“She never showed up,” said the mom. “It’s all extremely disheartening.”
She then went into the store to purchase some formula.
“They had nothing,” she said.