If there’s one way to drive panic into the heart of a new parent, it’s to tell them that the infant formula their baby relies on is suddenly unavailable. This has been the experience of many parents in the United States in recent weeks as supply chain issues and a substantial recall led to unexpected formula shortages. While Canada’s formula supply has remained relatively steady (although there have been some reports of barren shelves here and there), panic has crept over the border and now some parents are considering alternatives—including homemade baby formula recipes.
If you’re concerned about potential formula shortages—or you’re simply curious about homemade infant formula—here’s what you need to know about keeping your infant healthy, safe and well-fed.
What’s in baby formula?
Most standard infant formula is made from cow’s milk protein and offers a carefully constructed balance of carbohydrates, iron, fat and micronutrients. It’s designed to mimic the composition of human breast milk, which offers the perfect nutritional balance for developing infants.
The main difference between formula and breast milk is that the latter is a living composition that offers some protective mechanisms based on viruses the mother has been exposed to, whereas formula is inert. Formula also has slightly more iron than breast milk.
“It’s important to remind people that infant formula is highly regulated by Health Canada,” says Heather Mileski, a registered dietitian at McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton, Ont. “That’s because it’s the sole source of nutrition for [many] babies.”
Is homemade infant formula safe?
It won’t take much googling to find homemade baby formula recipes online. But that doesn’t mean you should go ahead and make formula at home.
“I don’t think parents should make their own formula,” says ElyAnne Ratcliffe, a paediatric gastroenterologist at McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton, Ont. “My concerns are about balanced nutrition, especially for a baby less than one year of age.”
Ratcliffe compares formula to an IV drip, explaining that intravenous medications are delivered in saline rather than in water because they have to match your body’s own chemistry. “If you make a formula that’s too diluted, you can overload the infant with water and it will throw their body chemistry off.” Similarly, if a homemade formula is too concentrated or has the wrong level of micronutrients, toxicity is a concern.
While the caloric value of formula made at home may be similar to store-bought, it’s often too high or too low, and the micronutrient distribution can be potentially problematic. “The distribution [in homemade infant formula] is often quite off in terms of the amount of protein as well as fat content,” says Mileski. “Babies’ brains are developing and they need a lot of fat content.” Homemade formulas may lack zinc or have too much of another micronutrient, leading to toxicity concerns.
Babies are also more susceptible to food poisoning, and many homemade infant formula recipes call for ingredients that aren’t safe for babies, like goat’s milk. Furthermore, if you’re using a blender or other kitchen equipment to make infant formula at home, food safety issues and potential cross-contamination add risk. “I’ve seen an infant with botulism because of cross-contamination with honey,” says Ratcliffe.
Is oat milk safe for babies? How about goat’s milk or nut milks?
None of these options are safe for infants, and they’re not advised for young toddlers, either. The reasons are similar to why homemade formula isn’t advisable—milk alternatives lack the proper balance of protein, fats, iron, sodium and micronutrients necessary for healthy development. Breastmilk and store-purchased infant formula are the only safe, recommended options for infant nutrition. After ten months of age, cow’s milk is the best choice.
“Plant-based beverages aren’t appropriate for children under two years of age because they are very low in protein and fat,” Mileski says, citing almond milk as a specific example. While these products are popular, many parents don’t realize they don’t provide the calories or nutrition an infant needs. “It’s assumed to be equivalent, but it’s not.”
“Iron is significantly less in milk products when compared to formula, and anemia is a significant concern for developing brains,” Mileski says.
Is it safe to use a friend’s breast milk?
Most experts generally advise against it. Although NICUs keep a supply of donated breast milk, these donations are screened for health and safety, similar to blood donations.
That said, if you choose to accept breast milk from someone else, it’s better to do so from a close friend or family member (your sister who has a surplus of frozen milk, for example) than a kind stranger on the internet.
Unfortunately, the families hardest hit by formula shortages are those with infants on specialty formulas—something breastmilk cannot replace. “If there’s a cow’s milk protein allergy, breastmilk won’t solve that issue,” says Mileski.
What should parents do if they can’t find formula for their baby?
If your baby is on a standard cow’s milk protein-based formula, you can likely find a comparable product. Your baby’s healthcare provider can offer suggestions, as many physicians have tables that compare the composition of various brands. “You can look for a formula in a similar class,’ Mileski says. “There will be multiple formulas with the same breakdown.”
You can also ask around in local parenting groups or social media channels to get leads on where your preferred formula (or a generic brand alternative) is available in town. Calling around to different pharmacies may help you get a sense of where supply is available. This may be more difficult in rural areas, so connect with your healthcare provider early if living in a more remote location is a factor.
Mileski acknowledges that some parents have a sense of distrust of formula and can be overwhelmed or confused by the ingredients list, which contains all of the chemical names of the micronutrients needed to replicate breast milk and provide proper nutrition. So, when their brand of choice isn’t available, they may panic—even if a generic brand is available. “A regulated infant formula, no matter what the brand is, is better than an unregulated homemade version. People tend to be quite brand loyal but the reality is that there aren’t drastic differences between products.”
Again, specialty formulas are the real concern for healthcare providers. “There are a lot of options for standard infant formulas because there are so many generic brands, and they are more than sufficient for your child,” Mileski says. “What we’re struggling with is hydrolyzed formulas being on backorder.”
If your infant is on a speciality formula, reach out to your healthcare provider for guidance. They may be able to access samples, direct you to a different source or otherwise ensure that your family can access the nutrition your baby needs. Families should only go to the emergency room if they have immediate concerns about their baby’s health.
Save your homemade approach for solids
Homemade baby food is an excellent source of nutrition for older infants and toddlers, but infant formula is a highly complex and highly regulated product that cannot be replicated in your kitchen. “I’m all for natural stuff—there are plenty of opportunities to make homemade baby food or go organic—but you should not make homemade infant formula,” Ratcliffe says.
Food insecurity can be genuinely scary for parents, especially when an infant requires specialized nutrition, and Ratcliffe empathizes with parents who are worried about being able to feed their babies. “It can be concerning and overwhelming, and it’s very appropriate to reach out for help. If you’re worried or having trouble finding formula, talk to your healthcare provider and get the advice you need about finding something equivalent.”
And finally, consider if your child truly needs as much as you’re offering, says Mileski. “Often I see a child of 12 months of age who is drinking too much formula because parents start adding food but they don’t start decreasing formula.” Reducing formula when it’s age-appropriate will also help reduce the demand for formula, allowing easier access to families with infants who rely on it as their sole source of nutrition.