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Breastfeeding in Emergency and Relief Situations:
Refugee camps, war, famine, earthquakes and other natural disasters

Reported by Kathy Kerr
Arlington, Virginia, USA
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 35 No. 5, October-November 1999, p. 108

(This article is a report on a 1999 LLLI Conference session.)

A recent Time magazine cover shows a distraught Kosovo mother breastfeeding her baby. In Africa a woman escaping war is photographed on a bed with her newborn triplets. War, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes wreak havoc on families rich or poor.

The recent hurricane Mitch destroyed much of Honduras and other parts of Central America. Two local priests had heartfelt concern for the many mothers and babies in the shelters. They spent a lot of money buying bottles and formula with good intentions that the babies wouldn't be hungry. But they did not consider that most of the mothers were breastfeeding.

The highest mortality rate in time of emergency is children under age five, especially those under age six months. Many relief organizations, also with good intentions, distribute formula without evaluating the long term effects.

Many do not have guidelines for infant feeding much less breastfeeding. In some cases, the formula companies arrive on the scene even before the relief agencies. The New York Times recently reported that a formula company refused to donate baby food if their formula was not also accepted. In Mexico, relief organizations received inappropriate amounts of infant formula and workers used it to make hot drinks for mothers and older children.

At the time of a crisis, women may find themselves alone without husbands or families. They are traumatized physically and emotionally. Fuel, water and food are scarce. Conditions are unsanitary. There may be babies with special needs such as premies, ill babies or triplets. Mothers from bottle-feeding cultures may be most at risk especially if humanitarian volunteers have no information about breastfeeding or relactation.

In many situations it is wise to encourage mothers to initiate lactation or to relactate. This process could take from three days to many weeks. Mothers who were using mixed breast and bottle-feeding should be encouraged to breastfeed as much as possible. In some emergency situations a baby might have to be wet-nursed or provided milk from donor mothers. Other babies might be used to help stimulate a mother's milk supply.

Relief organizations should adopt and implement the Breastfeeding Friendly Hospital Initiative policies. Humanitarian workers and emergency personnel such as the National Guard, police and fire departments need pre-emergency training that includes breastfeeding guidelines. The guidelines would include basic information such as identifying babies under one year of age, finding volunteers with breastfeeding information and experience to assist mothers, and avoiding separation of mother and baby.

Volunteers on the scene of an emergency can help by creating private, comfortable places for breastfeeding. Posters or radio announcements should inform mothers that help is available. In an emergency everyone must work together. Breastfeeding saves babies' lives and helps empower mothers to have the strength to help others.

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