Tough financial times often call for inventive, improvised measures for families to make ends meet, but it nearly cost Jeri Moss the life of her 5-month-old son La’Damian.
Moss, a 23-year-old Tampa, Fla., student, stretched the supply of baby formula for her infant by adding extra water, but it triggered a near-fatal effect in La’Damian while she was out shopping with him at a local grocery store.
“He curled up in like a ball, and so I grabbed him and noticed he wasn’t breathing,” Moss told NBC News for a report that aired Wednesday on TODAY.
Moss performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation on La’Damian, but the boy still wasn’t breathing when he was rushed to University Community Hospital last week. He was diagnosed with water intoxication and put on a ventilator.
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Hospital physician James Orlowski told NBC, “Another hour, he could have been dead.”
Happily for Moss, La’Damian is on the mend, and was brought home on Tuesday. But her near-miss shines a light on the serious health dangers for infants from parents cutting corners to cope with a limited budget.
“When parents don’t have two pennies to rub together, good intentions are ‘Why don’t we dilute the formula, it will last longer,’ ” NBC chief medical editor Dr. Nancy Snyderman told Meredith Vieira on TODAY on Wednesday.
“The problem with infants is there’s this margin of safety that’s so narrow.”
Moss had been faced with tough choices. La’Damian’s father had been out of work for months, and she tried to make do with feeding her son eight to 10 cans of formula a month when he needed 15. But she was unaware that the extra water she added to the formula had potentially deadly effects.
While Snyderman noted that water intoxication is usually associated with athletes, it poses a very real danger for tiny, developing bodies. “What it does is it dilutes your blood; there are two things, sodium and potassium, that just take a nosedive,” she said.
Babies can’t typically handle extra water in their diet until they are at least 10 months old, but Dr. Orlowski told NBC that Moss’ measures are sadly a sign of the times.
“It definitely reflects the economic times,” he said. “When things get tighter, then one of the things people consider doing is diluting the formula a little bit more.”
Snyderman urged parents to follow directions on a baby formula package to the letter — and then seek help.
“Let your doctor or hospital know you are going to need help, because beyond the [Women, Infants and Children] program, hospitals can help, food banks are helping this time of year, and food stamps we know are going up,” she told Vieira. “But we’re going to see more and more of these cases. Water intoxication can kill infants, so moms and dads, use the formula as directed.”
To be sure, baby formula is a pricey proposition for struggling households. Moss said she receives her formula through the WIC programs, but the additional cans La’Damian needed, at $16 to $18 each even at discount shops, made her make some hard choices.
Still, Moss told NBC she’s learned her lesson after her medical drama. La’Damian, who was also diagnosed with malnutrition, will need to be monitored for two years to make sure his development wasn’t affected by his seizure.
“I never thought that extra water could actually kill a baby,” Moss said. “I didn’t know the side effects. Now I know.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints