When she’s not with her baby or at work, Brittany Smick is hunting for formula. But not just any formula. It has to be Enfamil Gentlease, the only brand her 4-month-old can digest.
If she’s lucky, the Barre resident finds cans at the Berlin Walmart. She has also driven as far as Lebanon, New Hampshire, an hour away, in search of formula. She’s asked relatives in other states to be on the lookout too.
Otherwise, Smick crowdsources leads on Facebook. The primary group for local parents in need, “Helping VT Parents Find Formula,” is just shy of 700 members. Bound by the grim camaraderie of scarcity, parents in the group trade formula, post tips and share photos of formula supplies at different stores across the state. Parents can also make urgent requests if they’re close to running out.
The national formula shortage has mostly fallen out of public consciousness, but low supplies persist.
Last winter, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration shut down a major formula plant operated by Abbott Laboratories in Michigan and issued a recall because of concerns over potential bacterial contamination. The closure, along with pandemic-related supply chain difficulties, drastically decreased formula stock nationwide. By May, the shortage worsened, and Abbott said it would take weeks or months for supplies to stabilize.
The Biden administration attempted to alleviate the shortage by importing formula from overseas and working with retailers to boost supplies on the shelf. Despite these measures, progress has been uneven and slow. Formula sales nationwide in August increased roughly 7% compared to last year, but shortages remain, according to data from the White House.
The Vermont Facebook group is one of dozens of national and local formula networks that mushroomed across social media during the shortage. Formula Train, a popular national Facebook group, has 1,300 members and enforces strict rules to minimize scams and price gouging. Other networks, such as the Formula Exchange Group, which has 24,000 members, rely strictly on parent-to-parent swaps.
“It would be a full time job just trying to find formula alone,” said Smick, a front office manager at an eye doctor’s office in Burlington. “You could easily spend 40 hours a week just going to a million places, and even then you could be unsuccessful. … That's why I love the (Vermont) group, because it's just a bunch of moms that are trying our best for our kids.”
Unlike the toilet paper and hand sanitizer shortages in the early days of the pandemic, infant formula has no substitute except for breastmilk, said Vicki Rich, a nurse and lactation consultant in Burlington.
But breastfeeding is not an option for many parents, according to Rich.
“There are breasts that didn't develop appropriately and don't have enough milk making capacity,” she said. “There are accidents that happen to breasts. There's breast cancer that happens there. … There are babies who can't breastfeed effectively.“
For those parents and their babies, formula — the right kind at the right amount — is essential. To make things more complicated, babies tend to require one brand or type of formula, often because of allergies, sensitivities or other issues.
Smick knows that all too well. Her daughter, Estelle, was born with omphalocele, a condition in which the liver, intestines and other organs stick out of the stomach, usually corrected sometime after birth with surgery. Per Estelle’s doctors, the infant needs formula to make sure she gets enough calories.
At first, Smick fed Estelle regular Enfamil, a formula that has dairy proteins in it. But Estelle wouldn’t gain weight, and at roughly 6 weeks old, she was hospitalized with an intestinal blockage. Doctors diagnosed her with sensitivity to dairy and prescribed formula with digested milk proteins.
Smick has tried other brands since, but settled on Enfamil Gentlease. In June, the first-time mom offered up the formula Estelle could not use — six cans of Gerber SoothPro — on the Vermont formula Facebook page.
That’s when Melisa Dzombic, also a first-time mom, asked for the formula. Dzombic lives in Burlington. Her 6-month-old, Dean, has a sensitive stomach that does best with Gerber formula.
Dzombic is a stay-at-home mom. She’s been scouring social media and local stores for the formula her son needs. Her son goes through four or five cans a week, and Dzombic wants to have enough around for him.
“It’s very stressful and makes me nervous that it won’t get better,” she said. “Moms shouldn’t have to be afraid that their babies can’t find the food they need.”
Facebook is a big help, she said, with a few caveats. Vermont’s Facebook group is relatively small, so Dzombic has to buy some formula through the larger networks, where price gouging and scams are more common.
Dzombic hasn’t been scammed, but groups like Formula Train are full of posts of parents warning other parents about price gouging and con artists.
Dean is now old enough to begin trying some solid foods, and Dzombic is hoping to wean him off formula as soon as possible. She knows it would still be months — and dozens of cans to procure — before he’s completely off of formula.
“I try to stay positive and hope that it’ll get better,” she said. “But it does make me anxious that I won’t be able to get him formula.”
With Estelle’s delicate intestines, Smick may not be able to move away from formula as fast. At just two weeks shy of 5 months, Estelle could, in theory, get started on solids. But Smick is cautious.
“We just have to listen to her body as much as possible,” she said.
There is some hope that the shortage could ease significantly in the near future. Late last month, Abbott re-opened its Michigan facility. A company spokesperson told CNN earlier this month that production is ramping up.
In the meantime, the Vermont Department of Health has set up a resource page with information on formula availability as well as recommendations to avoid homemade or diluted formulas.
According to the guidelines, infants 6 months or older can drink cow’s milk instead of formula for brief periods of time if no formula is available, but the department suggests parents consult their child’s pediatrician before taking that step.
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