Jeri Moss, 23 of Tampa, Florida, did what so many mothers have done before in her attempt to stretch a nearly bare cupboard to meet her child's needs: She added water to her son's formula.
The problem is Moss did it for far too long and nearly killed her 5-month-old son La'Damian. The baby was diagnosed with water intoxication and had to be hospitalized for several days, close to death. The news broke earlier this week and Moss agreed to share her story with the public as a warning because with more difficult financial times ahead for many families, more mothers may be tempted to follow Moss's thinking.
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Dr. Barry Ramsey, my sons' pediatrician in bygone years, said parents need to realize how dangerously close Moss came to tragedy.
"More than likely it was hyponatremia," said Ramsey of Westside Pediatrics in Lexington. "It occurs when there is lower blood sodium. The water dilutes the blood and if you over-dilute, you are lowering the concentration of electrolytes."
Who knew that could happen? I imagine folks would know that diluting formula would decrease the amount of nutrition a baby receives. But who knew diluting it could poison a child? I did it a time or two with my daughter years ago.
Now that we have so many more people trying to get by during this recession, how many of them are courting disaster?
Ramsey said hyponatremia creates a short circuit in the brain and causes the child to have a seizure. Before that point, however, he said the baby probably had become lethargic, not crying to eat as a normal baby would. And that is in addition to the effects of malnourishment.
The symptoms are subtle and may not be noticeable until a seizure occurs. Prompt medical attention may negate long lasting consequences.
"An older infant wouldn't have gotten into trouble," Ramsey said.
A little water — no more than an ounce — can be used to calm a fussy baby before feeding. Said Ramsey, "You can give a baby water; you just can't give it in place of formula."
According to various news reports, Moss said she diluted her infant son's formula by using no more than four scoops of the powdered Good Start soy formula per 8-ounce bottle instead of the six scoops called for by the directions. Some reports said the amount may have been closer to two scoops for 10 ounces of water.
She was trying to stretch the allotment of formula she received from the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, which serves children up to age 5, and prenatal, breast-feeding and postpartum women, providing nutritional information, vouchers and support.
Doraine Bailey, breastfeeding coordinator for the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department, said federal guidelines dictate how much each infant receives.
"WIC gives a flat amount," she said, regardless of the infant's age. "They give you 10 (12 ounce) cans of powdered formula or 31 (13 ounce) cans of concentrate."
The amount is less if the mother is breastfeeding and only needs a small amount of formula to supplement, she said.
Each can of powder, which can cost between $6.50 and $13.12 in Fayette County, makes about 76 ounces liquid formula when water is added. Each can of concentrate, which costs $2.62 to $4.43, makes 26 ounces.
"Early on, that is more than an infant needs," Bailey said, "and not enough when it gets older. That's why it's called supplemental."
WIC officials are seeing record numbers of applicants.
"The WIC program in Fayette County is exploding," said Bailey. "We had 7,300 participants last month. That is an all-time record."
She credited the increase to the economic downturn as well as the growing awareness of the programs WIC offers.
If a family needs help filling the gap between the amount of formula WIC provides and what the baby needs, other programs can step in. Mandy Brajuha, with God's Pantry, said families seeking emergency food, typically referred by social workers, are asked if they need baby food or formula.
"We always have formula available," she said, adding she hasn't seen a dramatic increase in requests for formula, however.
Help is out there, parents. Give your baby the correct formula and when it starts to run short, seek help from other sources.
Moss said she had stretched the formula for her 18-month-old daughter as well with no apparent ill effect. But she might not have done that the entire life of that child as she had done with La'Damien.
Call the WIC program if you need help. They not only help with securing formula, but also offer support and help to nurture a child. Call (859) 252-2371. Or check out the Web site at www.lexingtonhealthdepartment.org.
Times are definitely hard, but they don't have to be deadly as well.