The shortage of infant formula in the United States has sparked renewed interest in milk banks in the United States, with some mothers offering to donate breast milk and desperate parents calling to see if it is a solution to feed their babies.
It’s a path that won’t work for all formula-fed babies, especially those with special dietary needs, and it poses challenges as the country’s dozens of nonprofit milk banks prioritize feeding medically fragile infants. Organizations collect milk from mothers and process it, including pasteurization, then work with hospitals to distribute it.
The shortage stems from a safety recall and supply disruptions and has drawn national attention with panicked parents looking to swap and buy formula online and President Joe Biden urging manufacturers to ramp up production and discussing with retailers how they could restock shelves to address regional disparities. The Biden administration also said Friday that formula maker Abbott Laboratories has committed to providing discounts through August for a food stamp-like program that helps women, infants and children called WIC.
At Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast, based in Newton, Massachusetts, interest in donating and receiving milk due to the shortage has increased. Typically, the milk bank receives around 30-50 calls per month from people wanting to donate. On Thursday alone, 35 calls from potential donors were received, said Deborah Youngblood, the bank’s chief executive.
“It’s interesting that the first kind of response we’ve had is from potential donors – so people are responding to the shortage of formulas with some kind of amazing, compassionate response about how can I be part of the solution?” she says.
Youngblood was talking about people like Kayla Gillespie, a 38-year-old mother of three from Hays, Kansas. Gillespie first donated to Mothers’ Milk Bank in Denver six years ago, donating 18 gallons (68 liters) after the birth of her first child, and had no plans to do so again.
“I thought 18 gallons was enough for one person,” she said. “If I hadn’t heard about the shortage, I wouldn’t start the process again, just because I have three children and it’s a bit chaotic here.”
She promised at least 150 ounces of her milk, but said she expects to give a lot more than that.
“I’m very lucky to be able to produce milk, so I just felt like I had to do something,” she said.
She’s said in the past that she’s shipped her frozen milk in special containers to Denver, but this time her local hospital is taking the donations and she can just drop them off.
It’s not just donors. Parents desperate to feed their babies are also looking for milk banks.
At the Massachusetts Milk Bank, about 30 people called for milk because they couldn’t find their baby’s usual formula, Youngblood said. That’s almost no call, because the milk bank usually serves hospitals.
The Human Milk Banking Association of North America, an accrediting body for nonprofit milk banks, is seeing a “significant increase” in demand, according to Lindsay Groff, the group’s executive director. She estimates that inquiries from parents seeking to fill the gap in the formula have increased by 20% in recent days.
Groff called the shortage a “crisis” and said it wasn’t as simple as parents just donating breast milk, as the vast majority of those supplies are for babies with health conditions.
“If people can donate, now would be the time, because when we have more inventory, we can look beyond the medically fragile,” she said.
Parents are also turning to online breastmilk exchange forums to meet their babies’ needs.
Amanda Kastelein, a mother of three from Middlebury, Connecticut, supplemented the special formula she needs for 10-month-old Emerson with breast milk from a mother she found on a peer-to-peer Facebook page called Human Milk 4 Human Babies.
Kastelein stopped breastfeeding after contracting recurring infections, but tried to start breastfeeding again in March after the formula was recalled, with little success.
“Emerson is allergic to most formulas, so it was hard to find something he’s not allergic to,” she said.
Hannah Breton of Naugatuck, Connecticut stepped in, who was producing more milk than her 2.5-month-old son needed. She gives Kastelein about 60 ounces of milk every two weeks. That’s enough to supplement her supply of formula and feed Emerson.
“She asked a bunch of questions — what medications I’m on, if any, that sort of thing,” Breton said. “So we decided, ‘OK, that’s perfect.’ So she comes every two weeks and takes the milk that I have reserved for her.
“I feel useful,” she added. “It’s exciting and rewarding that I can give to a mother who can’t find what she’s looking for, and if her son can’t get formula, I mean, it’s scary.
Rebecca Heinrich, director of the Mothers’ Milk Bank in Colorado, advises those looking for milk that finding donors on your own can be risky.
“We want to make sure these mothers are as safe as possible and have their baby’s needs met, so consulting with their healthcare provider about how to meet those needs is the best way to go,” he said. she stated.
The shortage is creating hardship especially for low-income families after formula maker Abbott’s recall, due to contamination concerns. The recall depleted many brands covered by WIC, a federal program like food stamps for women, infants and children, though it now allows brand substitutes.
On Friday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack sent a letter to the head of Abbott Laboratories expressing what he called his “serious concern about the accessibility of safe infant formula”, noting that Abbott holds contracts infant formula under the federal WIC program. Vilsack asked Abbott to continue a program that offers discounts for alternative products, including formulas for competing brands, which it did on a monthly basis. The White House said Friday that Abbott had committed to giving discounts through the end of August.
The Biden administration has said it is working with states to make it easier for WIC recipients to purchase different sizes of formula that their benefits may not currently cover.
Abbott said that pending Food and Drug Administration approval, it could restart a manufacturing site “within two weeks.”
The company would begin by producing EleCare, Alimentum, and Metabolic formulas, then begin production of Similac and other formulas. Once production started, it would take six to eight weeks for the formula to hit the shelves.
On Tuesday, the FDA said it was working with U.S. manufacturers to ramp up production and streamline red tape to allow more imports.