As the baby formula shortage continues, increasingly desperate parents are searching for answers about what to do when they can’t find the formula they need. One trend that has medical professionals and regulatory agencies concerned is people making their own formula. The Food and Drug Administration and the American Academy of Pediatrics have warned against using it, citing a lack of balanced nutrition and the risk of harm to babies. News reports are springing up of babies hospitalized for drinking homemade or diluted formula, as parents struggle to find the products they typically use to feed their babies. But that hasn’t stopped recipes from popping up all over social media, where they pull in large numbers of views and likes.
On TikTok, a recipe using hemp seeds, sea moss, and medjool dates has been viewed more than 10,000 times. In the comments, users ask the original poster, who doesn’t claim to be a healthcare professional, for advice on introducing sea moss to a baby who’s never had it before. A beautiful blonde TikToker with 16,000 followers posted a video where she’s holding an infant on her hip while she explains that she’s preparing their bottle with baby formula she made “from scratch.” The recipe she uses calls for raw milk — which regulatory agencies advise against drinking because of the risk of pathogens — and comes from the holistic nutrition group the Weston A. Price Foundation, which has also shared misinformation about the Covid-19 vaccine. (The foundation did not immediately respond to a request for comment on its formula recipe. This article will be updated if they do.)
A video suggesting a mix of Carnation evaporated milk, Karo syrup, baby vitamins and distilled water has a whopping 860,000 views. Another evaporated milk and corn syrup video has been watched more than 120,000 times. The combination is one of the most popular recipes bouncing around social platforms, with many users arguing it’s how they or their parents were fed, before the introduction of modern formula.
Steven Abrams, professor of pediatrics at Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin, acknowledges many infants were fed evaporated milk recipes before formula became the norm, but that doesn’t mean people should use that method today. “Most of them did fine, but most of them isn’t good enough,” he says. “It’s just flat-out not safe. The fact that most babies in the Fifties were raised on it doesn’t mean that we want to go back to what was an inadequate way to feed babies from the 1950s. The fact that your mother, grandmother, great grandmother survived on it doesn’t mean that your child will.”
Abrams recently authored guidelines for the American Academy of Pediatrics, offering guidance to parents that if they must, they can feed a babies over six months old cow’s milk for a short period of time, if they cannot find any type of formula in stores. “The idea is that over six months of age, cow milk is not ideal, but for the babies who are non-allergic, it’s really not dangerous and it’s better than homemade formulas,” he says. “When you do a homemade formula, you’re mixing a lot of things together, and therefore you run the risk of contamination, and you run the risk of getting even the most basic nutrition really wrong.” Abrams adds that breast milk banks affiliated with the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, which typically send their supply to NICUs to help premature infants, have been seeing an uptick in donations. Some may be able to help parents in need by providing them with breast milk that has been pasteurized.
Carla Cevasco, an assistant professor of American studies at Rutgers University and a historian of infant feeding, recently posted a Twitter thread explaining that before the invention of formula, many babies who couldn’t breastfeed died because the other options were either unsafe or nutritionally incomplete. “People have always needed alternatives [to breastfeeding,]” she says. “It’s just been a fairly recent phenomenon that those alternatives have been safe.”
Further, Cevasco emphasizes that just because a recipe was popular a long time ago doesn’t mean it’s safe. “Speaking to the whole phenomenon of recreating recipes from the past, sometimes they’re gross and sometimes they’re actually dangerous,” she says. “When I look at cookbooks from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there’s a lot of things in there that you’re like, ooh boy, botulism. Looked at through the lens of modern food safety standards, it’s like, that’s salmonella in a glass. So I think it’s just really important to listen to the advice of medical professionals about what are the best next steps to take.”
Juli Novotny, who runs the plant-based recipe blog Pure Kitchen, doesn’t see the problem with sharing information about homemade formulas with parents in need. Novotny posted a formula recipe for her 6,700 Instagram followers last week that got around 250 likes. It includes goat’s milk, carrot juice, flax oil, and nutritional yeast. She says she fed the recipe to her own then-baby, who’s now a healthy 14-year-old. As she watched people struggle with the formula shortage, she felt it was her responsibility to share the formula alternative that worked for her. “I’m not trying to play doctor,” she says. “I’m not saying people should do this in general. I don’t promote this. I don’t go around telling people they shouldn’t have formula. I mind my business. I just thought if they can’t get formula, if you can feed your baby something and it’s worked for someone — I don’t get why it would be any controversy.”
Allie Seckel, a certified infant-feeding technician who calls herself the Formula Fairy on social media, says it’s simply never safe to make formula yourself. She’s posted several videos recently on TikTok discouraging parents from trying DIY formulas and debunking myths about the shortage. “Infants have very specific needs,” she says. “Formula requires minimum levels of 29 nutrients, and then nine of those also have maximum levels. There’s really no way to replicate those nutritional needs at home.” And then there are food safety concerns. “There’s issues with sterility and bacterial contamination,” she says. “So you have to worry about that as well, especially if you’re using raw milk.”
Malori, a homesteader who runs the account Black Rifle Homestead and who asked to use only her first name, as she does on social media, says she would never use an evaporated milk recipe, and she gets why healthcare professionals would advise against them. But, she also thinks officials are painting with too broad a brush when they say not to use any homemade formula. A couple days ago, Malori published an affiliate post for a formula kit sold by a goat dairy, which claims it offers the first product of its kind to comply with federal nutritional requirements for infant formulas. She is currently using to feed her second child.
Experts say this is playing with fire. According to Abrams, even if it appears that all nutrients are sufficient in a homemade formula, there could be other issues with feeding it to an infant. “It may sound like they have the right amount of nutrients in there, but the mixture of them may not be absorbable by the baby,” he says. “Or some of the sources may not be sterile enough for the babies, so it’s just not the way to go. People keep wanting me to say, well, for a short period of time, just mix it at home, and I won’t do that.”
Novotny, the food blogger, acknowledges that people should consult someone in healthcare or nutrition before trying her carrot juice and goat’s milk formula, but she still doesn’t see anything wrong with posting it publicly. ”I’m not sharing as a health professional,” she says. “I’m just sharing a recipe.”