Baby formula shortage drags on for stressed Alaska parents and caregivers

A national baby formula shortage has led to stress, fear and many, many runs to the store for some Alaskans.

Caregivers say finding formula in Alaska remains a frustrating challenge. Some have gone on daily drives across town to several stores, encountering many barren shelves. Another parent says she felt tied to breastfeeding to avoid expensive formula costs.

After a large recall back in February impacted several types of formula produced by Abbott Nutrition, shelves across the nation started to empty. While the Michigan plant involved in the recall restarted production on Saturday, Abbott has said it could take six to eight weeks for products to arrive on store shelves.

The shortage has been waxing Alaskans like Tamara Dizon in Anchorage for months. In March, she had to return containers of baby formula that were recalled, suddenly leaving her with only a couple of days’ worth of formula for her son.

Dizon, along with her 3-month-old and 4-year-old, ended up driving to seven stores and checking several more online that day before finally finding formula in Eagle River, she said.

Dizon has managed to find the formula she needs, although she recently had to switch products after her son developed an intolerance to a formula she was using — “a nightmare,” she said.

In order to prepare enough of the right kind of formula for an upcoming trip out of town, she went to two or three stores each day for almost a week, finally acquiring roughly three weeks’ worth of formula. Dizon said those trips included both Targets in North and South Anchorage, every day.

Even with the extra formula, she said, she feels like she should have more.

“But I also don’t want to just buy completely everything in Anchorage, especially when I know that there are other people who have the same babies who have the same problem who need the same one as me,” Dizon said.

‘It comes out as fear’

After her patients give birth, Dr. Natalie Ward, an OB-GYN at Anchorage Women’s Clinic, said postpartum visits are lately filled with questions over how to increase milk supply, where to get safe baby formula, and whether it’s OK to use formula with lot numbers listed in the recall.

The baby formula shortage comes on top of pandemic pregnancies during which patients have had to go it alone, with visitor limitations at appointments and during birth. She’s seeing higher levels of postpartum anxiety and depression right now, she said.

“It’s stress level that is different than I’ve seen, I would say, at any point in my career,” Ward said.

Ward said asking patients how they’re doing with breastfeeding can trigger a breakdown because of frustration that it’s not going well or uncertainty over what could happen to their supply of milk, even if breastfeeding is going fine at the moment.

“It comes out as fear,” Ward said. “And I don’t think there’s anything, as a mother, more terrifying than not being able to take care of your kiddos.”

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Dr. Mary Ann Jacob, an Anchorage pediatrician, advised parents and caregivers against diluting infant formula to make it last longer or making it at home. She encouraged people who are struggling to find the formula to call their pediatricians.

‘I cannot choose to be done breastfeeding’

For some parents, the shortage may mean they must breastfeed longer than they normally would.

Jessica Madden of Anchorage has been breastfeeding her son and supplements his diet with formula on days he’s at day care. She recently discovered her son has multiple allergies and needs a particular type of formula.

But buying the specialized formula at the store is expensive since only the liquid, pre-mixed kind is available. She said she’s never been able to find the powdered product on shelves (it was included in the February recall).

It’s particularly stressful because she stopped breastfeeding her older child at 6 months and switched entirely to formula. But she can’t stop this time around, she said, or she’d have to scrape together an extra nearly $500 each month to pay for the liquid formula.

“I cannot choose to be done breastfeeding; I have to push through it,” Madden said. “Because essentially, the formula is not an option.”

Madden has to take more pump breaks, can’t travel away from her baby or pump for more than three hours, and is taking extra supplements.

“It’s just hard because naturally, I would say ‘OK, you know, things are weaning,’ so I would just make the natural transition, but I’m trying to fight it,'” she said.

Off the road system, where there’s sometimes only one place in town to buy formula, the shortage is also having an impact.

Bethany Brandell, who lives in the Southwest Alaska community of King Cove, didn’t know how severe the baby formula shortage was until she traveled to Anchorage to give birth to her second child in April. When she realized there wasn’t any formula in the stores, she knew she needed to get her son to breastfeed.

These days, she’s supplementing her son’s diet with formula, and she prefers it over breast milk. But she’s grateful, she said, since if she were to run out, her son could still breastfeed.

She said that King Cove has two stores, and only one sells formula. When it runs out, it could be a week before more comes, unless someone tries to get it shipped in another way.

In May, Brandell said, she ran out of the formula she’d gotten while in Anchorage and went to the store in King Cove the following day to pick up more. There were only a few containers remaining.

On Saturday, she said, there was nothing on the shelf. She has started trying to get her son to breastfeed more, though Brandell has four small cans of formula saved for when she really needs it.

“It is definitely stressful,” she said. “There’s just a lot running through my mind whenever I get to the last bit of formula.”

‘Right on that edge’

The majority of Abbott formulas that are provided by Alaska’s WIC nutrition programs were produced at the plant in Michigan that was shut down, said Elizabeth Walsh, family nutrition programs manager for the state.

In April, the program provided formula benefits to 2,174 infants, some of whom were fully fed on formula and others who were partially fed, according to Taryn Bliss, assistant family nutrition programs manager.

Since typical WIC formula may not be available, the program added brands and sizes, Bliss said.

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Bliss said most people have been able to meet their needs with the added flexibilities, and WIC has referred people to doctors who have a small amount of formula and are able to help in a pinch.

“I think we’ve been kind of right on that edge,” Bliss said. “I don’t want to paint it as being more dire than it is. And I also don’t want to paint it as being more stable than it is.”

Bliss said that in light of the recall, it’s important not to portray breastfeeding as the answer to the shortage. Breastfeeding is important, “but babies who need formulas still need formula,” she said.

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