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Oklahoma families with premature babies are struggling amid the formula shortage

Tim Bish / Unsplash

After one of the country’s largest formula manufacturers, Abbott Nutrition, had a bacterial outbreak in one of its facilities, Oklahoma parents and health providers have been struggling to find food for infants — especially those born too early.

“Preemie formula has been particularly challenging because there aren’t a lot of preemie formulas available on the market,” said Dr. Courtney Sauls, a pediatrician for Ascension St. John in Tulsa. “It’s very specific. We were already seeing kind of a shortage of it even before this big regular formula shortage. I don’t know if it was a supply chain issue or what, but it’s become especially sparse recently.”

The end of pregnancy is a time when babies’ brains and bones are growing quickly, and when babies are born early, that’s still happening — just outside the womb, Sauls said.

“Those babies often need higher calories to accommodate that rapid growth that they’re experiencing, kind of basically trying to play catch up,” she said.

There are different brands of preemie formula, but the most common one is Similac, sold by Abbott Nutrition.

That brand sells 40 percent of all the formula in the U.S., and it had a bacterial contamination issue at one of its major plants in Michigan this spring. The federal government — including the White House, Congress and food and drug regulators — is working to ramp up supply as the shortage continues across the country. Congress is also considering investigations into the company.

In the meantime, health officials and doctors like Sauls are recommending families work with pediatricians if they can’t find formula at the store. Pediatricians can recommend alternatives and sometimes have supply on hand to offer families.

Sauls said there are recipes families can use to make the formula last longer, but they should not do so without medical supervision. Watering down formula or making homemade formula without medical supervision can have dire consequences. Julia Nored, communications director for Infant Crisis Services, told StateImpact last week it can result in nutrient deficiencies, which in the worst cases can cause seizures.

Catherine Sweeney was StateImpact Oklahoma's health reporter from 2020 to 2023.
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