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Oops! I’ve run out of baby formula— Our Pediatrician shares tips on what to do.

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It happens. You think you’ve got everything you need on hand to take care of your baby, but weeks of sleepless nights can frazzle even the sharpest brains. In the middle of the night you drag yourself to the kitchen to prepare a bottle, and BOOM— you’re out of baby formula. Instantly, you begin to panic. You’ve got a screaming infant in your arms and nothing to feed them. 

Don’t panic, and don’t beat yourself up. Running out of formula happens to even the most prepared parents.

Wanting to get you expert advice about what to do when you reach for the scoop and find there’s nothing left, we consulted Dr. Régine Brioché, board-certified pediatrician at Tribeca Pediatrics and Bobbie medical advisor. Here’s what we learned. 

What to do if you run out of baby formula

The main issue with running out of formula is making sure your baby stays hydrated. While it may just mean their feed is delayed while you run to the store, if there’s no quick way to restock it’s important to offer them something in place of infant formula to prevent dehydration. 

Dr. Brioche advises, “in the first nine months of life, hydration options are limited to breastmilk, formula, and in emergency situations, Pedialyte.” 

While it might be tempting to give your baby water, this is not a good idea for babies under six months. Water should only be given to children aged six months and above, and even at that age a child should only have a small amount. This is because too much water upsets the electrolyte balance in a baby’s body. This can lead to brain swelling, seizures, and in extreme cases, death.1

Here are some emergency hydration options you can consider during the baby’s first year of life:

Can you give a baby Pedialyte or coconut water?

Pedialyte or coconut water could be an option depending on your baby’s age. “Coconut water is rich in carbohydrates and electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, and magnesium, but it is also high in potassium, which can lead to high potassium levels in infants with immature  kidneys,” advises Dr. Brioche. “High potassium levels can cause irregular heartbeats and even death, so it should only be given in small quantities to infants over six months of age.”

Can you give a baby cow’s milk?

Cow’s milk could be an option, depending on your baby’s age. “If infants are fed formula, cow’s milk can be gradually introduced into their diet between the ages of 9 and 12 months,” advises Dr. Brioche. The American Academy of Pediatrics states that cow’s milk should not be given until your baby reaches one year of age. Only whole cow’s milk or reduced-fat (2%) cow’s milk should be offered until age 2 years when low-fat (1%) or non-fat (skim) milk can be considered.2

Can I water down formula to make it last longer?

We get it. It’s tempting. Especially during times when we find ourselves struggling financially. Adding water to your baby’s formula to make it “stretch” can seem like a good idea that will save you money, but this is a bad idea that you should never try. 

“Infant kidneys are not fully developed,” says Dr. Brioche. When you add water to formula, their kidneys aren’t able to process it. 

Why water can be bad for infants:

  • It reduces the amount of nutrients your baby gets. Infant formula is specially formulated to deliver the right amount of vitamins and nutrients your baby needs. If you water down the formula, your baby won’t get the vital nutrients they need, which can slow their growth and development.3 This can lead to poor weight gain and delayed development. 
  • It can lead to water intoxication. Water intoxication is a potentially dangerous condition that leads to serious health conditions and even death.1 Because your baby’s kidneys are immature, they simply can’t process large loads of water.  Giving your baby watered down formula can lower the levels of important electrolytes, especially salt.

Emergency alternatives to baby formula:  

You know it’s not wise to water down formula or give your baby water or cow’s milk as an alternative, but what to do when you’re standing in the kitchen with a screaming, hungry baby and no formula? 

Here’s what Dr. Brioche advises when you’re in an emergency formula situation:

  • 0-6 Months old: If your infant is under six months of age, you can supplement them with Pedialyte, but make sure you do not give Pedialyte for more than two days at most. Ideally, you will want to replenish your formula supply as soon as possible, so that your baby doesn’t miss more than one or two feedings. Speak with your pediatrician before using this option.

Don’t attempt to give a baby under six months of age cow’s milk or a milk substitute, and do not give them pure water, as you can risk serious health conditions and even death. 

  • 6-9 Months old: Between the ages of six and nine months, your baby is just starting solid foods. Their solid food intake at this age, however, should be in addition to their formula intake, and is mostly for taste and texture introduction. 

If you’ve run out of formula, offering solids as an alternative is not necessarily a horrible idea. Providing healthy meals at least three times a day, along with 4-8 ounces of water per day is a good bridge for your baby’s health needs, but do not give them this combination for more than two days. Pedialyte is also safe to give for up to two days. 

  • 9-12 Months old: This is the safest scenario for running out of formula. In fact, some children this age have already begun to wean themselves off of formula and prefer solids to a liquid diet. They are beginning to transition to eating the foods they’ll eat as toddlers. Offering your child eight ounces of water, Pedialyte, or coconut water per day in addition to their meals is appropriate to keep them hydrated and healthy.  

The most important thing to remember is to stay calm, and get your hands on healthy infant formula as soon as possible. Water, milk alternatives, Pedialyte, and solid foods aren’t appropriate substitutes for young babies, and even older babies shouldn’t be given these emergency options for long periods of time. 

Who to call for help if you run out of formula:

If you’re having trouble affording your formula, you’ve got options. Don’t assume you need to water down formula or offer an alternative. There are programs available for assistance to ensure your baby has what they need to eat.

If you’re struggling, here are some places you can call for help with baby formula:

  • Call your doctor or your baby’s doctor. Your OBGYN or your baby’s healthcare provider may have formula samples on hand they can offer you to hold you over until you are able to get more. This isn’t a permanent solution for your formula needs, but it’s definitely an option you can explore in a pinch.
  • WIC. The federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program ensures that infants have their food and formula needs met. To find out if you are eligible for WIC, you can check with your county’s WIC office or contact them online.4
  • SNAP. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) offers benefits that provide food for low income families. Unlike WIC, the benefits can be used to purchase food for individuals of any age and SNAP benefits can be used to buy infant formula.5
  • Food banks. Local food banks may or may not have infant formula to offer, but it’s worth checking. Even if they don’t, they may be able to provide food for your family so that you can use your money, WIC, or SNAP benefits to buy formula.
  • Breast milk banks. Many areas have local breast milk banks that can offer assistance to families in need. In a pinch, you can get donor breast milk for your baby by contacting these facilities.

Making baby formula at home:

DO NOT attempt to make your own infant formula at home. This can be tempting, especially if you see a recipe on the internet, but this is not safe and may not give your baby all the nutrients they need. The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommends against making your own formula since it can be dangerous for your baby.6

Running out of baby formula isn’t the end of the world, but it is a serious issue that you’ll want to deal with as soon as possible. 

Making sure you have a supply of formula for your child is important in ensuring their proper health and development. 

Don’t hesitate to reach out for help if you need it to get your baby the nutrition they need!

Verified by: Morgan Leafe, MD, MHA

Sources:

1- Water intoxication in children | St. Louis Children’s

2- Why formula instead of cow’s milk? | American Academy of Pediatrics

3- How to safely prepare formula with water | American Academy of Pediatrics

4- Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children | U.S. Department of Agriculture

5- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program | U.S. Department of Agriculture

6- How should we feed our baby if we’re running low on money? | American Academy of Pediatrics

The content on this site is for informational purposes only and not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Discuss any health or feeding concerns with your infant's pediatrician. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay it based on the content on this page.
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The content on this site is for informational purposes only and not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Discuss any health or feeding concerns with your infant’s pediatrician. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay it based on the content on this page.

Meet the Author

Jenny Altman

Jenny is the head of content at Milk Drunk and a writer for all of her favorite wellness and mom sites including Well+Good, Peanut, Motherly and Scary Mommy. Mom to Luisa, she can be found talking bras and beauty with the moms at school and @IAmJennyAltman

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