First, Jasmine Dominguez found baby formula through a relative. When those cans were almost empty, she started driving — from store to store to store — with her 4-month-old in tow. Finally, her pediatrician gave her one can. 

“It’s a mess out there,” the doctor told her. 

A few days earlier, Kelsey Bowie posted on Facebook. She asked her friends and family, even the ones in Louisiana, to keep an eye out for a specific formula. Her 5-month-old, Khalil, can handle some baby food; she’s started to ration his formula to get him through the day.

When she first heard about the shortage, Lauren Stockard already had formula in bulk. She and her husband thought the supply would last them through the rough patch, but it won’t. They have two cans left. She’s supplementing with breast milk, but doesn’t produce enough to sustain her 4-month-old.

For families with infants under 1 years old, stories like these abound. Three months after a suspected bacterial contamination led to a nationwide recall of baby formula, caregivers in Tarrant County are looking to health providers, social media and each other to help them navigate the sea of empty shelves.

“This creativity is what we have to do — and what we have to rely on,” Dr. Bianka Soria-Olmos, a pediatrician with Cook Children’s Health Care System, said. “The safety of the baby, and their overall, adequate nutrition is a priority.”

Need help finding formula?

  1. Search for formula in stock near you through DFW Baby Formula or www.findhelp.org.
  2. The Mothers’ Milk Bank of North Texas has limited supplies of donor milk to help families who can’t find formula. Call 817-810-0071 to schedule an appointment.
  3. WIC clients can find formula options at texashhs.org/wicfoodupdates. Call your local WIC office if you can’t find the right brand or size.

What happened? 

In February, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a safety recall for several brands of formula produced at an Abbott factory in Michigan. 

The concerns arose when four babies developed bacterial infections after consuming formula made in the factory. Two of the babies died, and Abbott shuttered the site while the federal agency conducted an investigation. 

The closure reverberated through the country. Abbott is the largest baby formula maker in the U.S. The company also produces specialty formulas for babies who have rare diseases; some of these, too, were recalled. By early May, about 40% of formula nationwide was out of stock. 

Most babies don’t eat solid foods for their first six months, Soria-Olmos said. Three out of four babies in the U.S. drink formula along with or in lieu of breast milk during that time period, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Although the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends moms breastfeed their babies exclusively for their first six months, lactation consultant Stephanie Housley said some moms may not breastfeed, or may supplement breastfeeding with formula, for numerous reasons. Housley runs her own lactation consulting practice, Sunflower Babies, in Fort Worth. 

Moms who’ve had breast surgeries may not be able to breastfeed, she said. And, moms with diseases like HIV, or moms taking certain medications, shouldn’t. Furthermore, working moms may not feel like they have enough support from their employers to breastfeed or pump milk on the job, despite laws requiring employers to give moms time to pump at work. The baby, too, may struggle with latching or be unable to break down sugar in breast milk.

Some moms, like Stockard, simply don’t produce enough milk; stress, illness and dehydration after birth can diminish a mom’s supply. 

Stockard supplements her newborn’s diet with formula. She and her husband started buying in bulk after noticing prices had increased since her second child was born. The shortage created a “whole new level of stress.”

“She needs food and she needs to eat,” Stockard said. “If we can’t find formula, what else do we do?”

What’s safe? 

Alternatives aren’t always safe or accessible. For example, moms shouldn’t make their own formula, Soria-Olmos said. Nor should they substitute cow’s milk or dairy alternatives like almond or oat milk. They also shouldn’t dilute the formula with water — doing so can decrease a baby’s sodium level and, ultimately, lead to seizures and death. 

The list of what moms can do is shorter. Moms can revert to breastfeeding, if possible. Also, they can feed their babies with donor milk, Soria-Olmos said, but “there’s a safe way to do that.” 

Donor milk at the Mothers’ Milk Bank of North Texas is pasteurized and tested for bacteria before it can be shared. (Courtesy | Mothers’ Milk Bank of North Texas)

For example, at the Mothers’ Milk Bank of North Texas, donors navigate a lengthy screening process that requires an interview, a health release signed by a physician and blood testing to ensure their milk is safe to share. After the milk is pasteurized, it’s transferred to a third-party lab for bacterial testing. Until then, the milk is “in quarantine,” said Amy Trotter, spokesperson for the milk bank.

 The milk bank has been reserving its supplies for hospitals and critically ill babies, she said. Beginning this week, because of an influx in donor breast milk and an increase in laboratory hours, the milk bank is offering limited quantities of milk to families who can’t find formula.

Families can also, usually, switch formula brands — even if that means switching from a specialty formula that’s labeled “sensitive” or “gentle” and returning to a generic or standard formula, Soria-Olmos said. Babies with specific allergies or medical conditions should not switch without the guidance of a physician, she added.

Jasmine Dominguez and her daughter, Nevaeh. (Courtesy | Jasmine Dominguez)

Otherwise, when switching formulas, she encourages families to look out for symptoms like diarrhea or constipation — symptoms that may have, initially, persuaded families to pursue a specialty formula. If the symptoms don’t return, the baby likely has outgrown those troubles “because the gut is a little bit more mature,” she said. 

Dominguez, 22, is from Fort Worth. She’s raising her daughter Neveah on her own. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC, helps her pay for her formula. 

The federally funded program typically designates a specific type of formula — even down to the can size — that families can purchase using WIC benefits. Not long after the recall, the program began offering more options, said Michelle Cummings, who directs the WIC program in Tarrant County. Specifically, it expanded the list of available formulas that moms can access.

Through that expanded access, and at the recommendation of her pediatrician, Dominguez switched her daughter to a new brand of formula. Soon, Nevaeh began excreting blood. Dominguez switched her again. She bought only one can in case this one doesn’t work. She’s watching and waiting. 

“It’s so hard seeing her being affected by this sudden change,” she said. Still, she’s hopeful. Retailers that partner with WIC have the stock she needs in case this formula ends up working. 

Who’s helping? 

Other organizations, both public and private, have gathered to address the shortage. 

Last week, Misty Wilder emailed a group of public health professionals — including representatives from WIC, the Nurse-Family Partnership and the Mothers’ Milk Bank of North Texas — to share resources. Wilder directs Healthy Start at the University of North Texas Health Science Center.

Kelsey Bowie and her son, Khalil. (Courtesy | Kelsey Bowie)

The cohort is meeting Tuesday to discuss how to best serve families in Tarrant County. In the meantime, they’re amassing resources. Tiffany Smith, the nurse supervisor for the Nurse-Family Partnership in Tarrant County, said she’s directing moms to www.findhelp.org

Soria-Olmos, at Cook Children’s, encourages families to call her or another pediatrician when they’re close to running out; sometimes formula companies send her samples. If she has some in stock, she doles them out. 

She’s also asking each caregiver she sees how they’re finding formula. Then, she passes their tips on to other patients. 

For example, one mom’s parents live out of state; they’ve added formula to their grocery lists. When they find the right kind, they ship it to her. 

Bowie, 22, has tried similar networking methods. After she posted about the shortage on Facebook, long-lost contacts came out of the woodwork. High school teachers, even an old principal, messaged her. Friends she hasn’t spoken with in years. 

Her parents, partner and extended family are also on the lookout. And she wakes early, trying to catch Walmart opening to see if they’re restocking shelves. 

She’s not panicking yet. She still has some supply, and with the way she’s rationioning, she thinks it could last three more months. As for Khalil, her 5-month-old, his personality is starting to show. 

Lauren Stockard and her daughter. (Courtesy | Lauren Stockard)

“Whenever he’s hungry, he acts like a little monster,” she said.

Stockard, 33, has put out feelers with friends, bookmarked websites like DFW Baby Formula and refreshes retailer sites throughout the day to check their stock. She’s also the sponsorship director for Fort Worth Moms, a parenting resource in Tarrant County. 

Fort Worth Moms has more than 40,000 followers on various social media platforms, according to Stockard’s colleague and the organization’s owner, Emily Youree. The group’s followers are utilizing the platform for “research and reconnaissance,” Youree said. They, too, watch and wait. 

Last week, the Abbott plant brokered a deal with the FDA to reopen under strengthened safety guidelines in the next two weeks. Delivering new formula to shelves, though, could take six to eight weeks after that. 

In the meantime, Stockard will continue navigating the “information overwhelm.” Still, she said, she’s been heartened by how many people in Tarrant County have banded together to support each other. 

“They say it takes a village, and it really really does,” she said. “This kind of shows how big our village is and how good it is.”

Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Alexis Allison

Alexis Allison covers health for the Fort Worth Report. When she can, she'll slip in an illustration or two. Allison is a former high school English teacher and hopes her journalism is likewise educational....