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 last 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, meaning they 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, BPAS said.
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.
The charity Feed said 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.
The largest foodbank networks currently have policies in place which prevent their food banks from redistributing formula donations.
Guidelines issued by Unicef in November 2020, and backed by the UK government, leave food banks reluctant to hand out formula.
Unicef warns 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 warns 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.
The NHS says cows’ milk should not be given to a baby under the age of one.
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.
“The Government must increase the value of Healthy Start Vouchers to protect the health of the youngest and most vulnerable members of our society.”
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.
“Our fear is that without access to this basic essential, we will see babies in hospital, malnourished.”
Mumsnet founder and chief executive Justine Roberts said: “As our Mumsnet Voices Cost-of-Living Tracker repeatedly shows, the cost-of-living crisis is affecting families across the board, but it is particularly shocking to hear that the soaring cost of formula milk means some parents are struggling to feed their babies.
“At Mumsnet we have repeatedly called for better infant feeding support for new mums but it’s clear that we also need immediate practical action to support families on low incomes in these difficult times.
“The Government must act urgently to ensure no parent struggles to feed their baby this winter.”