Vulnerable parents may be forced to resort to unsafe practices to feed their babies because of sharp increase in the cost of infant formula, charities have warned.
The price of the cheapest brand of baby formula has leapt by 22%, according to analysis by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS).
BPAS said the cost of infant formula needed to safely feed a baby in the first six months of their life was no longer covered by Healthy Start vouchers, which are worth £8.50 a week and provided to women in England, Wales and Northern Ireland who are pregnant or have young children.
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.
NHS guidance recommends that babies are breastfed exclusively for the first year of their lives. However, figures suggest that the majority of babies are partially or fully formula-fed by the time they are six to eight weeks old.
BPAS’s 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, a co-founder of the baby bank AberNecessities, based in north-east 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.”
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”.
The largest food bank networks have policies in place that prevent their branches from redistributing formula donations.
Guidelines issued by Unicef in November 2020, and backed by the UK government, have left food banks reluctant to hand out formula. Unicef warns that while on the surface the use of food banks seems like a practical solution, handing out formula “can be a risky practice that can inadvertently cause harm”.
The children’s charity says 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.
The NHS says cows’ milk should not be given to a baby under the age of one.