A baby formula shortage has Massachusetts families scrambling to feed their children as shelves remain scarce.

Formula manufacturer Abbott Nutrition recalled three products in February after reports of infants becoming sick from bacteria. The products have been linked to two infant deaths. The recall, coupled with nationwide supply chain issues, pushed demand onto whatever formula parents could find in stock, limiting options for families whose children have complex medical needs and rely on specialized formulas.

Regina Lawrence, of Leominster, said her baby could end up back in the hospital because of this situation.

Her daughter Aubrey has several complex medical conditions and has stayed in the hospital for a collective five out of the nine months of her life. Lawrence said Aubrey cannot consume breast milk or cow’s milk due to an allergy, and it is unlikely she will be able to eat solid food any time soon. After trying a few different formulas, the family landed on EleCare — one of the products Abbott recalled. That caused Lawrence to switch Aubrey’s formula yet again.

A baby dressed in a pink dress with an oxygen tube and feeding tube
Aubrey Lawrence, of Leominster. Photo courtesy of Regina Lawrence

Some of those formula changes resulted in blood in Aubrey's gastrostomy-jejunostomy tube and made her vomit. Then they tried Nutramigen, which Lawrence said has worked well.

“If she doesn’t get Nutramigen, we are back in the hospital because we are no longer allowed to keep changing her formula,” Lawrence said.

The problem is finding it.

Although the Abbott Nutrition recall of Similac, EleCare and Alimentum formulas happened in February, supply still has not returned to normal levels as the Food and Drug Administration investigates the company’s factory in Sturgis, Michigan. In an April 15 statement, Abbott said it is continuing "to make progress on corrective actions" and is working with the FDA to restart operations at the plant.

The recall, combined with supply chain issues, has caused other formulas to run dry as parents work to find ways to feed their baby while navigating mostly empty shelves at stores such as CVS and Walgreens, which have implemented a limit as to how many containers of formula one customer can purchase at a time.

“We’ve only been home for a little over a month since we’ve been on the Nutramigen, and my last phone call was that they are on backorder until the end of May," said Lawrence. "And now it’s really hard trying to find formula out there."

She isn’t alone in the hunt for formula. Dr. Jack Maypole, a pediatrician at Boston Medical Center, said during the peak of the recall in February and March, his office received dozens of inquiries a day regarding the shortage and where formula could be found, compared to just a few a week before the recall happened.

Maypole said during his career he has seen past shortages of baby supplies — from formula to diapers to medical equipment — but this shortage has been notably grim.

“It’s never been at the magnitude and the scale that we’re seeing right now,” Maypole said, adding that the shortage hits medically fragile children particularly hard.

“Those families can really be at sea and really, actually be somewhat desperate to reestablish nutritional support for them," he said. "Those are the ones I worry about."

He advised families against diluting formula or substituting with cow’s milk. He recommended consulting with a doctor to find alternative nutrition if formula is unavailable.

Maypole said he has not seen any babies become hospitalized due to lack of nutrition, but expressed concern for the negative impacts on families as this shortage continues.

“If we don’t feed babies, then it could be catastrophic," he said. "Like most babies would have to be potentially seen in the emergency room or admitted to the hospital for nutrition if that were the case, and that would be absolutely catastrophic."

Lawrence said she has about a two-week supply of Nutramigen for Aubrey that will last until early May when Aubrey returns to the hospital for surgery.

“Doesn’t matter if you’re Mom, Grandma — whoever you’re taking care of — caregiver, anybody is very worried about formula,” she said.