The national baby formula shortage has parents across the country struggling to find access to infant formula for their babies.
On Tuesday, May 31, U.S. Senator Chris Murphy and Congresswoman Jahana Hayes were joined by providers from the UConn Health’s Women Center for a roundtable discussion on this critical issue and to learn of others affecting mothers and their babies in Connecticut and nationwide.
The formula shortage was caused by a manufacturing recall and subsequent closure of a major manufacturing plant as well as pandemic-related supply chain issues. In February 2022, an Abbott Nutrition facility in Michigan voluntarily recalled several infant formula products (including Similac, Alimentum, and EleCare) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning to consumers not to use these recalled products.
The Abbott Nutrition facility is one of only four manufacturers of formula in the United States but is responsible for 80 percent of the manufacturing of baby formula.
Connecticut’s own Congresswoman Hayes (CT-05), has led the introduction of the Access to Baby Formula Act to help improve access to infant formula amid a shortage for families who participate in the WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) program during a crisis. Since April, around 40% of formula products were out of stock in seven states, including Connecticut.
“When I took on this role, I never would have thought I’d be fighting to get babies food,” says Hayes. “I was a WIC mom and did not understand the nuances and how these programs were structured. So I think now we have a responsibility as a Congress to not only address the short term but the long term and make sure that this never happens again.”
The legislation passed both the House and Senate with overwhelming support and was signed by President Biden. The President also authorized the defense production act for both formula and the supplies to create formula.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control, and the World Health Organization, they recommend exclusive breastfeeding for six months, followed by continued breastfeeding as complementary foods are introduced, with the continuation of breastfeeding for one year or longer as mutually desired by mother and infant.
Marisa Merlo, lactation consultant at UConn Health points out that in Connecticut, 25% of infants are breastfed for six months. Not all women are able to breastfeed, some do not produce enough milk and for others, going back to work can make it difficult to continue.
In 2018, UConn John Dempsey Hospital (JDH) was the first hospital in Connecticut to open a milk depot. Partnering with Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast, a nonprofit community milk bank accredited by the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA), mothers can drop their breast milk donations off to Merlo, who handles the processing protocols. “For some babies, including those who are premature, it is medically necessary to have breast milk and if mom cannot produce, we have the benefit of the milk depot here to ensure they get the nutrition they need,” says Merlo.
Christina Solomito has been a long-time milk depot donor and Merlo has calculated that she has provided 13% of the milk at the UConn JDH milk bank, however that is no small feat.
“I’m grateful that I am able to help,” says Solomito. “It’s a process, however, you worry about feeding your own child, having a good supply, support, a good pump, as well as a supportive environment.”
Solomito points out that insurance does not cover all pumps and she paid $125 extra for a better pump, but that’s just the pump and doesn’t include parts and milk bags that cost $15 for 100.
“We heard from moms who are breastfeeding that the cost of the pump and replacement parts can be inhibitive especially if living paycheck to paycheck. Insurance pays for a little, but not enough,” says Murphy. “These roundtables are mechanisms to hear what else we can work on with our state and federal colleagues.”
Dr. Alex West, an OB/GYN at UConn Health talked about the time limits that insurance provides for her to spend in prenatal visits with mothers are minimal and while she starts educating on the benefits of breastfeeding in the first trimester, she would like to see more done in providing free education on these issues to mothers and supporting them after delivery as well.
Patients at UConn Health can attend breastfeeding education and other educational opportunities for free, but this isn’t the case universally.
Dr. Chris Morosky, associate professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at UConn Health, is concerned about what we will start observing in pregnant women with the chronic stress of the last few months that may cause issues such as pre-term births, pre-eclampsia, and complications that will require babies to be cared for in the Neonate Intensive Care Unit.
“We are deeply appreciative of all the work that the team at UConn Health does to support moms and families and children,” says Murphy. “Jahana and I were here to learn and get advice on how we come out of this crisis stronger than we went in. That means a supply chain that is stronger and less susceptible to these interruptions and that means support for our mothers and families that allows them to be able to provide constant reliable nutrition to their children.”
So where is the formula that has been sent in from outside the United States?
Hayes is on a committee that tracks where the formula is going when it lands. The formula that is here has been allocated to hospitals and medical centers for the most fragile and vulnerable babies whose lives are in jeopardy if they do not get this formula. Hayes will know more next week at an upcoming meeting as to when we can expect the formula to be back on the shelves and getting Abbott back online.
“We are committed to coming out of this crisis as fast as we can by putting mothers in a stronger position, in the long run, there are too many mothers breastfeeding their children who run into obstacle after obstacle that puts them in the position of relying on formula,” says Murphy. “There are some mothers who have no choice but to rely on formula, but others are put in that position because their workplace or their insurance company doesn’t give them what they need to provide breast milk. So we need to come out of this crisis in a place that puts women and families in a better place.”
“Out of this crisis, we have to have a renewed commitment to support families better. Looking at this in a much more comprehensive way. Our work is to make sure every baby has access to safe and nutritious formula,” says Hayes.