How Parents Are Finding Baby Formula in Boston

A shortage has led to a mad dash, and some creative solutions.

Photo by Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The baby formula shortage that has rocked the nation and caused immeasurable stress for parents across Massachusetts is far from over. Earlier this month, amid the fallout from supply chain issues and the abrupt closure of a critical Abbott formula-producing factory in Michigan, the out of stock rate for the essential source of nutrients for infants soared to 43 percent. That, plus a mad dash to the stores to scoop up whatever supply parents can get their hands on, has left many shelves around Boston bare. It could be weeks or months before things are back to normal. So what are parents in a bind and desperate to feed their kids doing, besides driving around to every CVS and Market Basket their gas tank can get them to? Here’s what we’ve seen.

Consulting the “Formula Fairies” 

As is often the case when existing systems do not meet people’s needs in times of crisis, moms on Facebook are on the case. A number of groups on social media have sprung up to help parents source formula, either from stores or from one another. One that has grown in popularity this week is called Formula Fairies of Greater Boston and Southern NH, where posters alert members when new formula shipments arrive, or help people with extra formula find another parent in need who can take it off their hands. People have also posted about where to find formula at Boston stores on the Nextdoor app.

Checking more stores than normal

If local grocery stores and pharmacies don’t have formula in stock, some parents have begun widening their search to stores you might not realize carry the stuff. According to this list, Bed, Bath, and Beyond and Office Max often carry small amounts, for example.

Contacting WIC

Lower income parents who buy baby formula with the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) have been hit especially hard by the shortage, because programs like WIC restrict which brands parents can use. In Massachusetts, the only WIC-eligible brand had been Abbott’s Similac formula, which has been difficult to find. The state has been posting regular updates on the situation here, and has urged parents struggling to find the formula that fits their babies’ needs to contact their local WIC program locations, which you can find on this map.

Calling doctors and food banks

Experts say the first call parents in need should make is to a pediatrician. Hospitals and doctor’s offices typically have better stock than your local pharmacy, and often have extra samples. Food banks, too, typically carry baby formula for needy parents. The Greater Boston Food Bank’s website includes a map with locations plotted out by zip code.

Mutual aid websites

Some parents have been turning to online exchanges designed to connect people who have formula with those that do not. One such site, run by Swampscott activist Keiko Zoll, is called Free Formula Exchange. Just as its name suggests, it’s a zero-cost way for people to access formula from one another directly: You aren’t allowed to sell or buy formula on the site; only to donate or receive it. Zoll’s site has gotten quite a bit of media attention over the past few days, and says as a result the number of parents seeking help on the site has skyrocketed:

Milk Banks

Breast milk is also an option that may be available to some parents. Resources like the Newton-based nonprofit Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast collect, store, and ship breast milk from donors to parents—typically for children with medical needs. Donated breast milk, which is pasteurized and frozen, comes at a cost and is available only with a prescription (there is also a financial assistance program for parents who can’t afford it). Supply is, of course, very limited. So anyone willing and able to donate breast milk can get started here, and begin donating in 2-3 weeks. Apparently, that’s exactly what people are doing: The nonprofit says it’s seen a surge in donors this week.

Peer-to-peer milk sharing

Some parents have opted to go around the existing milk bank system and source breastmilk directly from donors they meet online. Milk bank operators have offered some words of caution on this because sourcing milk from even the most well-meaning moms in your neighborhood can carry risks. But people do nevertheless seem to be doing so, notably via a network of Facebook groups called Human Milk 4 Human Babies, which has a chapter in Massachusetts.

The Mass Breastfeeding Coalition

Needless to say, many parents are panicking right now, and have a lot of questions about their options if they come up short on baby formula: Can you use cow’s milk in a pinch? What if you’ve stopped breastfeeding and want to start again? The Massachusetts Breastfeeding Coalition has some answers. Here is their resource page, and here are some quick tips they shared recently:

The Coalition also runs a website called ZipMilk, which links parents to services in their area like breastfeeding counselors and support groups, of which there are dozens in the Boston area.

Appealing to formula companies directly

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has also shared some advice for parents in search of formula, including the suggestion that they call manufacturers directly (if, I suppose, they have boundless patience and the will to try literally anything). Here’s what they shared:

  • Gerber’s MyGerber Baby Expert:  Reach a certified nutrition or lactation consultant by phone, text, Facebook Messenger, web chat, or video call, who can help you identify a similar formula that may be more readily available
  • Abbott’s Consumer Hotline: call 1-800-986-8540
  • Abbott’s urgent product request line: ask your OBGYN or your infant’s pediatrician to submit an urgent product request by downloading and completing the form – PDF
  • Reckitt’s Customer Service line: call 1-800 BABY-123 (222-9123)