The Dangers of Using Homemade Formula Amid Shortage

Photo credit: SOPA Images - Getty Images
Photo credit: SOPA Images - Getty Images

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  • Searches for homemade baby formula recipes are spiking online in light of the recent infant formula shortage.

  • Pediatricians and registered dietitians warn against making your own baby formula at home, citing serious life-threatening health complications.

  • Speak with your pediatrician's office if you are in need of formula or are considering switching to a different type of formula.

  • You can contact local food banks and pantries for availability, and reach out to the Department of Health's WIC program.

With the nationwide shortage of baby formula sending parents into panic, many are looking for a solution to feed their little ones. While searches spike for homemade baby formula recipes, experts warn against administering homemade formula to infants. Registered dietitians in the Good Housekeeping Institute Nutrition Lab sat down with pediatricians and infant nutrition experts to learn about the dangers of homemade baby formula and solutions for parents who are currently affected by the shortage.

Is homemade baby formula safe?

"Formula is a very complex nutrient-dense product made from years of development and clinical trials specifically for the needs of growing and developing babies," says Tanya Altmann, M.D., F.A.A.P., Founder of Calabasas Pediatrics and best-selling author of What to Feed Your Baby. "Homemade infant formulas often do not have the correct ratio of important nutrients such as protein, fat, vitamins and minerals." She adds that this can cause serious health issues such as electrolyte imbalance, deficient nutrition, poor growth and developmental problems.

Both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) strongly recommend against homemade baby formula, both citing serious health and safety concerns which include:

  • Contaminants: "Homemade infant formula is not sterile and there are many possible sources of bacterial contamination, including unclean water and ingredients that can easily support bacterial growth and harm the infant," says Stephanie Middleberg, M.S., R.D., Founder of Middleberg Nutrition and best-selling author of The Big Book of Organic Baby Food and The Big Book of Organic Toddler Food. Dr. Altmann adds that there is a danger of contamination from infectious organisms in homemade infant formula that can cause life threatening illness.

  • Nutritional deficiencies: There is a reason that infant formula is strictly regulated by the FDA, as the agency sets specific requirements for certain nutrients. Since homemade baby formula, of course, is not evaluated by the FDA, it may lack nutrients vital to infant growth. The absence or inadequate amounts of critical nutrients can pose serious growth and health issues for infants, including severe nutritional imbalances. "Homemade infant formula won’t meet your baby’s essential nutritional needs and can even be very dangerous to their growth and development," Middleberg says.

  • Nutritional toxicity: Too much of certain nutrients can pose toxicity risks as well. According to the AAP, homemade formula mixtures may contain too much salt or other nutrients that your baby's kidneys and liver cannot handle in large amounts. "Babies’ nutritional needs are very specific in the first year of life, and homemade infant formulas run the risk of containing too little or too much of certain vitamins and minerals including iron, calcium and protein," Middleberg notes.

These are just some of the dangers that homemade infant formula can pose. In a recent case report published in the September 2021 issue of Pediatrics, two unrelated infants had consumed a homemade vegan formula found on a popular social media website and subsequently developed severe life-threatening complications including vitamin D deficiency rickets, seizures and cardiac arrest. What's more, a quantitative content analysis reviewed over 140 DIY homemade infant formula recipes on nearly 60 blogs and found that the majority did not recommend consulting a healthcare professional before using and that blogger credentials varied, with only seven bloggers identifying themselves as "nutritionists."

Photo credit: SOPA Images - Getty Images
Photo credit: SOPA Images - Getty Images

Can I dilute baby formula to make it last longer?

Although diluting baby formula may seem like a harmless solution, the AAP advises against it, citing that FDA-approved infant formula is specifically designed for the correct amount of nutrition described on the label. Dr. Altmann warns that diluting the nutrition and can lead to major growth and health problems, including imbalances in vital nutrients.

Can cow's milk be a substitute for baby formula?

Experts advise against it. "There is no adequate alternative or substitute for the nutritional value that breast milk or formula provides to infants," Middleberg notes. She says that both breast milk and formula contain the optimum levels of electrolytes, protein, vitamins and minerals that babies need. "The protein levels in cow’s milk, for example, is too high and creates an excess load and burden on the young kidneys of an infant, which could readily cause significant impairment and damage."

But for parents who are in a pinch, the AAP recently updated their guidelines to say that if your child is older than 6 months of age and not on a specialty formula, you can feed them whole cow's milk for a brief period of time until the shortage is better. They stress that this is not ideal and should not become routine, but that it is a better short-term solution than diluting formula or making homemade formula.

When it comes to milk alternatives, the AAP says that soy milk may be an option for babies close to a year of age for a few days in an emergency situation, but recommends looking for kinds that are fortified with protein and calcium. In general, it's important to avoid almond milk or other plant milks that are often very low in protein and essential minerals.

What can I do if I can't afford or find formula?

Both Middleberg and Dr. Altmann advise parents in need of formula to contact their pediatrician's office to see if they have any extra formula on hand and if they have any advice, should you need to switch to another formula.

"If you need to transition to a new formula, ideally should you try to find one made with a similar protein source such as cow's milk protein or goat milk protein and do so slowly," Middelberg recommends. Transitioning to a new formula may result in some gassiness, and Middleberg says that should normalize but advises parents to keep a close eye on their child and let their pediatrician know immediately if things get worse or don’t improve.

Parents can also reach out to their local food banks, including Feeding America, or contact the Department of Health's Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program for assistance.

*This article was updated on May 19, 2022 to incorporate revised AAP guidelines regarding cow's milk and milk alternatives.

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