The Research Brief is a short summary of interesting academic work.
The big idea
Severe infant formula shortages forced one-third of families who depended on formula to feed their babies during the COVID-19 pandemic to resort to suboptimal nutritional practices that can harm babies’ health, according to our research published in the journal Maternal and Child Nutrition.
There are still shortages of infant formula 70% of US store shelves are bare in May 2022, with 10 states reporting out-of-stock percentages of 90% or more.
As psychology researchers who study breastfeeding, this situation made us concerned about the safety of infant nutrition. With two colleagues who focus on public healthwe conducted an online survey of more than 300 baby caregivers in the US to understand how many families struggled to get infant formula and what they fed their babies.
Given the magnitude of bottle-feeding shortages, we were not surprised that 31% of bottle-fed families reported difficulty obtaining infant formula, the most common being that it was sold out and having to go to more than one store to travel.
But their babies still had to eat. Unable to get their hands on infant formula forced caregivers to resort to potentially unhealthy or even dangerous emergency solutions. For example, 11% of formula-fed families surveyed said they practiced “formula stretching” — diluting infant formula with extra water to make the formula last longer, resulting in a baby getting less nutrition in each bottle.
In addition, 10% of bottle-fed families reported replacing bottled baby food with cereals, 8% prepared smaller bottles and 6% skipped bottle feeding for their babies, all of which provide babies with less nutritious meals.
Exclusively breastfeeding families were insulated from these supply disruptions. Nearly half of the breastfeeding families surveyed reported that COVID-19 lockdowns actually gave them time to increase their milk supply.
Why it matters
Our study suggests that the waves of formula shortages from 2020 to 2022 in the US were more than just an inconvenience to parents. Instead, this study is the first to document that bottle-feeding shortages are likely to have had real and widespread adverse effects on infant nutrition, as a high proportion of parents surveyed fed their infants in ways that could harm the infant’s health .
For example, studies have shown that adding extra water to “stretching” formula can lead to babies malnutrition, growth and cognitive delays even seizures and death in extreme cases. Adding grains to bottles increases your risk deaths from suffocation And severe constipation. In addition, feeding babies with age-inappropriate foods can have lifelong consequences cognitive development And growleading to a higher risk of chronic diseases such as obesity and cardiovascular disease.
Considering that about 75% of infants in the US are fed on infant formula in the first six months of life, bottle-feeding shortages could put about 2.7 million babies at risk for sub-optimal feeding practices each year.
A perfect storm of formula recalls, ingredient shortages and shipping delays contributed to COVID-19-related formula shortages in the US. While President Joe Biden’s administration has taken some steps to improve distribution infrastructuredoes the US currently have no emergency plans for infant nutrition outside common sense recommendations for individuals.
Unfortunately, climate change is likely to increase the risk of formula supply disruptions over the next century due to the increasing frequency of natural disasters.
The best way to protect infant nutrition from supply chain problems is to promote and support breastfeeding, which ensures optimal infant nutrition and insulates babies against these disruptions. Since not all babies can be breastfedhowever, public policies could help prevent and address acute formula shortages and ensure fair access to formulas for all.