Unsafe feeding practices driven by soaring cost of baby formula, charities warn

A baby staring at a bottle of formula.
The cost-of-living crisis has fueled the price of baby formula in the past year. Credit: PA

Increasing numbers of vulnerable families will be forced to resort to unsafe feeding practices due to the soaring cost of infant formula, charities have warned.

The cost of formula has soared over the past year, with the price of the cheapest brand increasing by 22%, according to analysis by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS).

Healthy Start Vouchers currently provide women in England, Wales and Northern Ireland who are pregnant or have young children with £8.50 a week, which can be used to buy nutritious food.

But the BPAS said these are no longer enough to pay for the amount of infant formula needed to safely feed a baby in the first six months of their life.

NHS guidance recommends that babies are exclusively breastfed for the first year of their lives. However, figures suggest that the majority of babies will be partially or fully formula fed by the time they are six to eight weeks old.

Children under the age of one should also not be given cows' milk, the guidance says.

Families that were unable to afford enough infant formula had resorted to watering down the product or feeding their babies unsuitable food, such as porridge, according to the charity Feed.

The largest foodbank networks currently have policies in place that prevent their food banks from redistributing formula donations.

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Guidelines issued by Unicef in November 2020, and backed by the UK government, leave food banks reluctant to hand out formula.

Unicef has warned that "while on the surface" food banks "seem like a practical solution," handing out formula "can be a risky practice that can inadvertently cause harm".

The children’s charity added that food bank staff and volunteers cannot support families "to feed their babies as safely as possible" in the same way trained professionals such as health visitors and midwives can do.

As a result, the charities are calling on the government to increase the value of the Healthy Start allowance from £8.50 to £10 a week for infants "to more realistically support families with formula-dependent infants".

BPAS chief executive Clare Murphy said: "We know that families experiencing food poverty resort to unsafe feeding methods, such as stretching out time between feeds and watering down formula.

"The government cannot stand by as babies are placed at risk of malnutrition and serious illness due to the cost-of-living crisis and the soaring price of infant formula."

Michelle Herd, co-founder of baby bank AberNecessities, based in the north east of Scotland, said: "We have seen an enormous increase in referrals for parents struggling to feed their little ones due to the soaring prices of formula milk.

"We need to make sure that infant formula is available to families who need it, whether that be through food banks and baby banks. In addition, the government must investigate rising costs, particularly for vital products such as infant formula."