Parents in the tri-state area and nationwide are desperately scrambling to find baby formula in the face of a shortage caused by the recall of Abbott Nutrition products in February.
But local hospitals serving new parents and infants told Gothamist Friday they have been able to weather the storm and keep their smallest patients well-fed. Part of their success stems from working with milk banks, which are staying well-stocked even amid rising demand.
“We’ve never run into an issue where we don’t have formula for a patient or a baby,” said Morgan Howard, an advanced clinical nutrition coordinator at Mount Sinai Kravis Children’s Hospital in Upper Manhattan.
Among most new parents, Mount Sinai Health System seeks to promote breastfeeding, Howard said. But she added that there are some exceptions — such as when a mom can’t physically breastfeed, a baby has a medical condition that requires them to use formula, or it’s simply not part of the parent’s plan.
In particular, some of the hospital’s sickest children previously relied on EleCare, a specialty formula that was among the Abbott products recalled after several babies who consumed them developed dangerous bacterial infections. EleCare is an amino acid-based formula that’s designed for babies who are allergic to other types of milk and formula or who suffer from other issues such as gastrointestinal disorders, according to Abbott’s product description.
But Howard said the hospital has been able to order alternative brands such as Neocate and Alfamino. Barbara Osborn, a spokesperson for Northwell Health, the largest health care provider in New York State with hospitals across the five boroughs and Long Island, also said the health system has had to switch specialty formula brands but hasn’t otherwise experienced issues related to the recall.
NYC Health + Hospitals’ facilities, meanwhile, “are not experiencing a formula shortage,” spokesperson Chris Miller said. Atlantic Health System in New Jersey also said its neonatal intensive care units haven’t been affected.
Howard said one of the biggest issues has been helping parents find ways to continue to access baby formula once they leave the hospital, including letting them know where it is still in stock.
“We’re also educating parents on things like not watering down your formula, not making their formulas at home, and using what they’re getting here — either that specific brand or we have a list of brand equivalents available,” Howard said.
When it comes to supplementing a parent’s breast milk, hospitals also rely on milk banks. These organizations receive donations from people who are lactating and then process and pasteurize it before redistributing it. That milk is primarily used for premature babies and as a “bridge supply” for new parents who have not started lactating yet.
Two milk banks in the region said they have received more orders from parents outside of hospitals during the formula shortage, but that their top priority is always hospitalized babies who are premature.
“For premature babies, human milk is a medical necessity,” said Linda Harelick, executive director of the New York Milk Bank. “And it really does help to prevent some serious medical complications that premature babies can face.”
The New York Milk Bank serves more than 45 hospitals in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, including Mount Sinai. Harelick said that while the nonprofit has received about 10% more requests from families in recent weeks, those requests have been outpaced by the roughly 20% increase in donations the milk bank has seen as news of the formula shortage has spread.
“We do have enough milk to supply the demand that we are currently seeing, even if it escalates a bit more,” she said.
Another nonprofit, Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast, said it has been able to continue supplying hospitals but is not able to respond to all of the outpatient requests it has received recently amid the formula shortage.
The organization has also experienced some overlapping challenges in recent months, which have been largely related to supply-chain and labor issues unrelated to the formula recall, said Ann-Marie Lindquist, director of community relations at Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast, which serves about 100 hospitals in the region.
“Sometimes we’ve experienced challenges processing all of the milk that has come in,” she said, adding that, at one point, “Our shipping boxes or our bottles were stuck out in the middle of the ocean on a carrier that didn’ don’t come in.”
As a result of the supply-chain issues, she said, “There was a short period of time when we were telling our hospitals to order just what they needed — that we would continue to meet all of their needs, but if they were able to space it out a bit, that would help us in the short term.”
One of those hospitals, Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center in New Jersey, has had to reduce the amount of milk it’s able to send new parents home with as a result of receiving less milk from Mothers’ Milk Bank, according to Samantha Anton, a hospital spokesperson .
She urged more people to donate to the nonprofit.