Katherine Lary sits Tuesday with two breastfeeding training dolls in the Women, Infants and Children clinic in Auburn. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

As parents and caregivers continue to face bare or sparsely stocked shelves of baby formula as the shortage wears on, local providers say there are resources to help families.

“It’s terrifying for parents,” Dr. Gretchen Pianka, a pediatrician at Central Maine Pediatrics in Lewiston said Tuesday.

“One of the most fundamental things is being able to feed your baby.”

Like many other consumer goods, baby formula has been affected by pandemic-related supply chain disruptions. Making the situation worse for U.S. consumers, in February, manufacturer Abbott Laboratories issued a voluntary recall of products made at its Michigan plant, including Similac, Alimentum and EleCare.

The Sturgis, Michigan, site is the largest baby formula manufacturing plant in the country.

Maine’s baby formula supply was down about 34% earlier this month, according to the Washington Post and Datasembly, which tracks retail information.


On Monday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it had reached an agreement with Abbott to reopen the shuttered Michigan plant, but it could take another two months before supplies begin to increase.

There are a number of reasons why a parent chooses to formula feed, Pianka said. Some mothers breastfeed but need formula to supplement their milk supply. Others use formula exclusively, often because a mother is unable to or chooses not to breastfeed, or because the baby has specific medical conditions, such as allergies or milk protein sensitivity.

Pianka said she’s definitely noticed an uptick in calls to her practice from parents looking for help or advice, particularly from parents who depend on specialty formulas for babies with allergies or sensitivities.

“Families are anxious,” she said.

The good news is there are options out there. For parents who are unable to find formula on store shelves, want to make sure that an alternative formula is appropriate for their baby or have any other concerns or questions, Pianka said their first call should be to their child’s pediatrician.

“The pediatrician knows those babies best and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all type thing,” she said.


If a baby has allergies or gastrointestinal issues, they have likely already been seen by an allergist or gastroenterologist, who can also help answer any questions or even reach out to a representative from the manufacturer to determine if an alternative product is appropriate. Those practices will sometimes also have samples of some of those specialty formulas that could help hold parents over for a few days.

Their other call should be to their local Women, Infants and Children Nutrition Program office, which provides nutrition education and resources for pregnant, postpartum and breastfeeding women, infants, and children up to the age of 5 who meet income guidelines.

The Maine WIC program served nearly 17,000 people last year, according to federal data.

But all families, regardless of if they qualify, can give their local WIC office a call, said Katherine Lary, who serves as the program director for Western Maine Community Action-WIC program.

The program, which has offices in Auburn and Wilton, served over 3,100 women, infants and children in Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties last month, including 221 babies who received formula in some capacity, Lary said.

They are only at 50% capacity, meaning that there are as many as 3,000 people who qualify for WIC services but are not utilizing them.


The formula shortage has hit low-income families in particular. About half of baby formula sold in the U.S. is purchased by food assistance program recipients, according to the Washington Post.

Lary said the phones are always ringing at her office, but “we’re definitely seeing an increase in phone calls,” she said.

She said that people are calling saying that they’ve tried to find formula at a few different stores without luck and need some help for what to do next.

“We do have a supply of a variety of different formulas on hand. It’s not enough to provide a family with all of their needs for the course of the month, but we’re at least able to get them, you know, a handful of cans to get them started,” she said

If they still have trouble finding formula, they can give WIC another call.

“We’re not going to leave them high and dry,” with the caveat, Lary said, WIC could also run out.


“That’s why we try to do our best to make sure that we give, you know, enough to get people at least a good week or so of not having to stress. But then, you know, make sure that we still have enough stock so we can continue to help all those babies.”

Under normal circumstances, Lary said her office doesn’t necessarily have a large supply of formula. But because WIC is a federal program and can contact vendors directly, they’ve been able to up their supply recently so that they can make sure the parents who need formula can get it, even when stores’ stock might be low.

“We’ve definitely got more on hand than we ever normally would.”

In addition to providing formula, Lary said her office can connect parents to a number of resources in-house or make referrals to other providers. She said WIC encourages mothers to breastfeed if they can.

There are breastfeeding peer counselors and certified location consultants there to work with mothers who are interested in breastfeeding.

For other parents for whom breastfeeding is not an option for whatever reason, “we’re going to make sure that she feels supported in her decision to use formula as well,” Lary said.


“We do our best to really make sure that moms remain calm and understand that they’re feeling a lot of mixed emotions and fears and concerns,” she said.

“We really like to make sure that they know they’re heard and that we’re supporting them.”

The only thing parents shouldn’t do? Make their own formula.

“Do not make your own baby formula. Those are dangerous,” Pianka said.

To learn more about WIC or to find your local WIC office, visit www.maine.gov/wic or call 287-3991.

Related Headlines

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.