It seems like everyone is trying to stretch their food budgets these days, but there’s one product that really can’t be altered: baby formula.
“Whenever economic times are hard, people will sometimes dilute formula with water,” said Dr. Kevin Karpowicz, a pediatrician at the Ellis Pediatric Health Center. That can be harmful or even fatal.
The main problem for babies who drink diluted formula is poor weight gain, said Karpowicz.
“In general, babies will preserve brain growth before they preserve the growth of the rest of the body, but it can impact brain development if it continues on for long periods of time,” he said.
Last Wednesday, the Today Show aired a report on water intoxication, in which Jeri Moss, a 23-year-old Tampa., Fla., woman, stretched the supply of baby formula for her 5-month-old baby by adding extra water. It triggered a near-fatal effect in him when he suddenly stopped breathing.
He was diagnosed with water intoxication, which happens when a body consumes so much water that it dilutes the blood, throwing off sodium and potassium levels.
Karpowicz said water intoxication is extremely unusual.
“Most likely what you are going to see with diluted formula is just an undernourished child,” he said.
Whenever possible, Karpowicz said breastfeeding is the best way to feed an infant. “It clearly is the best way nutritionally for infants,” he said.
Studies have shown that breast milk protects against many types of illnesses, such as colds, flu, diarrhea and ear infections.
“In these economic times, it has an even greater advantage in that it doesn’t cost anything,” said Karpowicz. “So clearly, if people are concerned about the economic impact of a baby, breastfeeding would be a great advantage.”
Ginny Parsons, a registered dietitian with the Albany Medical Center Women, Infants and Children’s Program (WIC), a supplemental nutrition program for low-income women, infants and children up to age 5, said WIC will provide breastfeeding counseling for women as well as breast pumps if needed.
“Breast milk is the perfect food for babies, ideally for the first year of life,” she said. “It is ready anytime, and it is always the right temperature. Unfortunately, many women have gotten away from it for various reasons.”
For women who don’t breastfeed, WIC has a supplemental food and nutrition education program.
“We have mandated counseling on the proper mixing of formula, making sure women have safe water for the formula and proper storage and warming instructions,” said Parsons.
Infants under four months of age who are breastfed or formula fed should never be given extra water, juice or other foods.
“Some mothers tend to think that extra water is good, but formula has adequate water by itself,” said Parsons.
Excess water, even in small amounts, can fill up an infant’s tiny stomach so they don’t grow properly, she said.
“As long as breast milk or formula is their main form of nutrition, the infants are getting adequate water in that,” said Parsons. “Once they hit water intoxication, it can be fatal.”
Not adding enough water when mixing formula can also be dangerous. Without proper dilution, infants can come down with diarrhea, vomiting and inflammation in the colon and small bowel.
“Babies are very tiny, and it doesn’t take much to disrupt their system,” Parsons said.
Karpowicz said a few parents have asked him for guidance about the presence of melamine, an industrial chemical that turned up in baby formula in China, causing kidney problems and kidney stones in babies. Around 1,200 babies were sickened recently, and at least four babies died.
Melamine is the same industrial contaminant from China that poisoned and killed thousands of dogs and cats in the United States last year.
The FDA has said that formula produced in the United States is safe, with only trace amounts of contamination, too low to cause a health risk to infants.
“However, it’s something that’s certainly should be in the back of people’s minds,” said Karpowicz.
Babies who have kidney failure as a result of the toxic effects of melamine have a decrease in urine, will not eat and generally look sick, said Karpowicz. “These babies are very ill,” he said.