Well Being

Breastfeeding as a Lifesaver in Emergencies

By  | 

Welcome to the August Carnival of Breastfeeding in celebration of World Breastfeeding Week August 1-7, 2009! The theme for La Leche League's celebration is “Breastfeeding: Prepared for Life.” lll-usa-wbw-2009-logoBreastfeeding prepares mothers and babies to deal with life's emergencies: a natural disaster, war, epidemic, or time of political and economic unrest. Breastfeeding provides vital protection for infants in an emergency. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports:

In 2004 alone, major emergencies affected nearly 40 million people, including 5.8 million children under the age of five, in 55 countries. The main causes of death among children during emergencies are the same as those occurring among otherwise disadvantaged populations, namely malnutrition, diarrhoeal diseases, acute respiratory infection, measles and malaria. However, emergencies distinguish themselves by their frequently soaring crude mortality rates, which can be two to 70 times higher than average. Experience shows that even in previously healthy populations, child morbidity and crude mortality rates can increase twentyfold in as short a period as two weeks. The best hope for averting the disability and death that are so common among children during emergencies is to ensure that they are adequately cared for and fed.

One might hope that such a dramatic increase in mortality would not be seen in an industrialized nation with advanced medical care like the United States. Yet in 2005, less than a year after that report came out, Hurricane Katrina struck and — not including the immediate death toll — the mortality rate soared in New Orleans! For the six month period starting in January 2006, by some measures the mortality rate increased 47% compared to the mortality rate during the same time period in previous years. Incredibly, January 2006 was a full four months after the hurricane hit and the people in that region continued to suffer such devastating health effects. (It was difficult to determine the mortality rate right after the hurricane due to the disarray of the local health systems and the displacement of the population in the hurricane's aftermath).

In 2008 researcher Jacqueline H. Wolf reflected back on the media coverage in the immediate wake of the hurricane:

Discussing our culture's attitude toward breastfeeding in relation to the Katrina disaster would have been a tremendous public service. Think about how much our discomfort with breastfeeding would have been mitigated if one of the Katrina reports contrasted the convenience and dependability of breastfeeding with the difficulty and unreliability of formula feeding. Imagine: images of mothers' breasts saving babies' lives. That would have been a national revelation. We talk about the importance of breastfeeding, yet we're a formula feeding culture. It seemed perfectly natural to all the reporters and much of the viewing audience during Katrina that mothers were hysterical and babies were dehydrated because there was not enough infant formula available. The entire nation seemed to be saying, “Of course that's a consequence of a hurricane.” No reporter thought to ask, “Why aren't these women breastfeeding?” No reporter thought to ask, “What roadblocks have we constructed as a nation that would dissuade women from breastfeeding and put their babies through this completely avoidable horror?”

“Got Milk? Not in public!” International Breastfeeding Journal 2008, 3:11. This Medindia article describes one tragic Katrina story:

Some women freeze when it comes to breastfeeding during emergencies and this happens in countries all over the world. When Hurricane Katrina hit the US in 2005, a woman who was stuck on a rooftop with many other family members and with little access to clean water, bottle fed her two week old baby for two weeks and when rescued later, asked for help to dry up her breast milk because her breast felt sore with the accumulated milk. When asked why she didn’t breastfeed her baby the mother replied that she “felt quite unable to do this.” The baby later died in a hospital.

A health counselor who worked with survivors of Katrina said sadly, “What amazes me is that no one with the mother in New Orleans knew to have the mother put her baby to her breast. So many generations had not considered breastfeeding as a way to feed babies that the memory was lost. The baby was lost, also.”

Mothers need to get the message that breastfeeding is a lifesaver, whether it be in regular times or times of emergency. In an emergency mothers who are breastfeeding should continue to do so. Mothers who have recently given birth should put their babies to the breast and mothers who have given birth within six months should nurse and hand-express to build up a milk supply as best as each mother is able. In an emergency, if the mother's own milk is not available right away or through re-lactation, then donor human milk or wet nursing should be considered. Only then should ready-made formula and canned formula be considered as last resorts.

Other Carnival Entries

Motherwear Breastfeeding Blog: Breastfeeding in Emergency Situations
Blacktating: Breastfeeding and Living through Hurricanes
Hobo Mama: Breastfeeding in Local and Global Crises
Pure Mothers: Marketing away “Real Milk”
Chronicles of a Nursing Mom: Tips for Consistent and Long-Term Breastfeeding Success
Zen Mommy: How Breastfeeding Prepares a Child for Life
Cave Mother: The Moments That Made Me Thankful That I Breastfeed
Fusion Parenting: Breastfeeding: Prepared for LIFE!