Desperate parents are stealing baby formula to keep their children fed

UK

Like most first-time dads, this father wants to do the best for his baby son, even if that means stealing baby formula to keep him fed.

“It’s the hungry scream, I know it now,” he said, looking out to sea from the clifftop.

Most days, this man and his partner take him for walks along the beach in his buggy. The sea air is fresh. It sounds idyllic, but the truth is they can barely afford to feed him.

Both parents asked that their names not be published.

“I was trying to make the milk last, so I wasn’t putting as much powder in as it said to,” the man said. The responsibility of feeding a baby weighs heavily.

“In my head, I was thinking ‘F*** that – I am just going to go and steal him some’.”

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‘There’s no way you’d let them starve’

Over the next few weeks, he worked out how to avoid the security measures in their local shops to minimise the chance of being caught – but the adrenaline is always there when he goes in to steal.

His favoured technique is the top-up: buying £20 worth of groceries and stealing a few things that he simply doesn’t put through the till.

Sometimes it works, but not always. He was once challenged by two store employees who had spotted him stealing. They asked: “What’s in the bag?”

His response was simple and to the point: “Just some stuff I have stolen, if I had the money I’d pay for it.”

Only once have the police been called and he was taken off to the police station for questioning before being released.

But he keeps doing it to feed his son.

The most expensive – and essential – item on the list

“It’s just when we’re really desperate, we manage our money normally,” says the boy’s mum who is in her early 30s.

She’s embarrassed by what they’ve been doing – it leaves her stressed and tired.

She is on statutory maternity leave from her job as a retail assistant, but inflation means they run out of money almost every month. She said she hasn’t been able to access Health Start vouchers from the government that are supposed to provide some help.

Baby formula is one of the most expensive, and essential, items on their shopping list.

She tried hard to breastfeed, but her son wouldn’t latch on, so formula milk is their only way of feeding him.

“I just tell my partner what I need, when we need it and he’ll go and do it. There’s always a risk of him being arrested and not coming back,” she said, struggling to finish the sentence.

“And then… we’re stuck.”

Her partner is unapologetic. He’ll do what it takes to feed his son: “The price of the milk is criminal. Where’s the line? If you’re talking about getting food for your baby, surely that’s not on the wrong side of the line?”

They are just one of countless families across the country who are suffering due to above-inflation rises in the cost of baby formula milk. New data from First Steps Nutrition shows that the cost of the cheapest brand of formula milk has risen by 45% in the past two years.

Other brands have risen between 17% and 31% in that time period.

Read more:
Soaring cost of baby formula is leading to unsafe feeding practices
How one group of US mums is mobilising

Watering down formula

Health professionals consistently point out that all first formula milks must meet the same industry standards, so the cheapest and the most expensive brands all provide a baby with the nutrition they need.

Sky News has also spoken to other desperate parents risking their babies’ health by feeding them formula that is either watered down or mixed with cow’s milk or sugar-laden condensed milk.

“People shouldn’t be facing these choices when they are simply trying to feed their baby safely … This shouldn’t be happening in 21st-century Britain,” says Clare Murphy, the chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advice Service.

“This is a scandal.”

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‘On the brink of a public health crisis’

She added: “It is appalling that we’re having this conversation that you are going out and finding these kind of stories.

“All these things that are happening are putting us on the brink of a public health crisis.”

Inside Hartlepool’s Baby Bank, they feel that crisis biting every day. It is another frantic day of parents coming in looking for essentials for their babies, and their team of volunteers buzz about fetching items. A sparrow has just flown in from outside and there’s a commotion while they try to guide it out. It’s a rare moment of distraction.

The number of families coming in keeps rising – so too does the variety of nationalities amongst them. They have one volunteer from El Salvador who helps translate for Spanish speakers. The next mum through the door only speaks Arabic. Her 10-year-old son is helping convey what his mother needs to the volunteers.

Just two tins left

The baby bank founder Emilie De Bruijn has just two final tins of first formula available to give out. They are like “gold dust” she said, sounding drained. “This is the busiest week we’ve ever had.”

Her team of volunteers now support around 170 families a week, with baby formula their second most-requested item behind nappies.

Charities across the UK have told Sky News they are dealing with a similar surge in demand – from Aberdeen to Cornwall.

The Splice Baby Bank in Bridgend told Sky News that they often have families needing two tubs of formula a week and regularly make deliveries to families. At the Tippytoes Baby Bank in Leyland, Lancashire, they are exasperated because it all feels so precarious – they are in no doubt that the health and development of babies are being put at risk.

Back in Hartlepool, Emilie explained that when they can’t provide the formula a family needs, parents often become frustrated and resort to desperate measures to feed their little ones.

“People are doing unsafe things,” Emilie says. “They are swapping to [different types] of formula and that’s not good for digestion. They have said: ‘I’d rather baby had a rash than be starving’. It’s that stigma, that shame. Will you be trolled? Will people try and take your child away?”

A black market

The problem with having an in-demand, unaffordable product is that people will look for alternative ways of finding it. A black market in baby formula has sprung up.

The father who was stealing milk also admits to buying discount tubs via a contact, he called a “fence” – a woman selling stolen baby formula for knockdown prices.

“She sells it for a third of the price … She’ll be on the bus with the bags and I’ll meet her later,” he explains. “It’s branded stuff. I won’t go to a back alley and buy baby formula from someone who has made it themselves.”

Over the past few months, Sky News has seen multiple messages posted online from parents desperately seeking baby formula.

One mum told Sky News she was even considering selling sexual images of herself to meet the cost of it.

Others look for cheap or free formula milk which is regularly advertised online by people selling or giving it away. Health professionals call it “formula foraging”. Often it’s just parents with good intentions who don’t want to throw unopened containers that are still within their use-by date in the bin.

It is the tubs that are already open and being traded online that really concern Emilie.

“It could be out of date, it could be laden with bacteria.

“This could be a baby ends up in A&E, on a drip, because they could get such a bad stomach bug. They could get so dehydrated. It’s horrendous.

“Families shouldn’t be having to put themselves into dangerous situations like buying a half tub. How do you know that hasn’t been laced with something?”

She would like to see a clampdown: “It’s dangerous, but people are desperate. That child could be eating something that’s riddled with bacteria. I don’t want to see babies ended up in hospital with stomach bugs, but it seems inevitable.”

More needing hospital treatment

Infant feeding specialist Dr Vicky Thomas told Sky News that anecdotal evidence suggests there are more infants being brought for treatment at A&E but that the reasons are often complex, and families are unlikely to say that they are struggling to feed their children.

“In the worst-case scenarios, families sometimes worry that something like that will result in their children being removed from them which is absolutely not what we would expect to happen.

“I think we are going to see babies who are being underfed or possibly overfed because they are having milk crammed into them when they are not actually wanting or needing it just because of the expense of making a bottle.”

She pointed out just how crucial the first year is for a baby’s development. “They will double their birth weight by the time they are six months, they treble it by the time they are about a year old… you double the size of your brain,” she explained.

“So it’s not just about building a healthy body, it’s about building a healthy brain.”

Dr Thomas agrees that what’s happening does amount to a public health crisis. “I think that is completely accurate,” she said.

“The nutrition that babies are receiving right now determines their health going forward for the next 80 years.”

A daily battle for survival

The need for better solutions for families is clear. Clare Murphy from BPAS explained that there are short-term measures that could help, but also wants a proper government-led review to establish what is going on.

“This is an issue in need of national attention,” she said.

“It really needs an urgent review to see how we can absolutely secure access to affordable infant formula for every family that needs it.

“We need to look at why we are facing such high prices and really investigate how we ensure access to an affordable, safe product that families across the UK can use.”

The formula milk manufacturers told Sky News that they realise how difficult times are for families but that they are facing a significant rise in production costs.

A spokesperson for Danone, which makes Cow & Gate and Aptamil, told Sky News: “We’ve tried to make savings and absorb costs wherever we can so we can continue to offer the best value to parents right across the UK.

“We are working with key retailers to offer more bigger format value packs, which we have also committed to keep at the same price to retailers throughout 2023.

“Ultimately, individual retailers set the selling price in their stores for all products.”

A spokesperson for Nestle, which makes SMA formula milk, told Sky News they are working to increase prices in a responsible way, adding: “Our goal is to keep products affordable and accessible for consumers while still paying fair prices to our suppliers, including farmers.”

A UK government spokesperson said: “We recognise the impact rising prices are having on families which is why we are providing significant support worth on average £3,300 per household, including holding down energy bills, uplifting benefits and delivering direct cash payments.

“In April 2021, the value of Healthy Start rose from £3.10 to £4.25 per week, providing additional support to eligible pregnant women and families with children aged under four and over one to make healthy food choices.

“Those eligible families with children aged under one can receive £8.50 in total, a rise from £6.20 a week.”

There is no plan to increase the value of the Healthy Start vouchers.

None of that helps the hungry boy whose parents are stealing to keep him fed. It’s a daily battle that they are in – it’s a survival thing for them. Their options are limited.

His mum said we were the first people she has told about stealing the milk. She hates herself for doing it but won’t wait for that hungry scream again.

“He’s precious. I’d do anything for him. Even though it’s breaking the law.”

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