Disasters can bring with them widespread destruction and displacement of families living in the affected areas. This leaves them at risk for disease, malnutrition, and dehydration. Babies are at particular risk, especially if they are bottle-fed rather than breastfed.
Following such events, baby formula and clean water may be scarce, and breastfeeding may be the best way to ensure survival of this vulnerable population.
Amid all of the chaos, babies still need to eat. It doesn’t matter if they are newborn or not, they still need to eat.
As your child’s primary caretaker, confidant, and teacher, your support can have the biggest impact on how your child recovers and heals after disasters.
Research has shown that:
- Nearly 95% of infant and child deaths during disasters and emergencies result from diarrhea caused by contaminated water and an unsanitary environment.
- Infant formula has been linked to an increase in infant disease and death.
- Breastfeeding saves lives! Human milk is always clean, it requires no fuel to warm it up, needs no water, or electricity, and is available, even in the direst circumstances.
- Human milk contains antibodies that fight infection, including diarrhea and respiratory infections common among infants in emergency situations.
- Human milk provides infants with perfect nutrition. This includes the proper amount of vitamins and minerals required for normal growth.
- Breastfeeding releases hormones that lower stress and anxiety in both babies and mothers.
- Mothers who breastfeed are able to keep their babies warm to prevent hypothermia.
Can a Mother Breastfeed During a Disaster?
During a disaster the mother’s own milk is the safest option for food. If this is not possible then donor human milk is the next best option.
Even under stress, a mother can continue to make milk. If circumstances are leading to trouble with the flow of milk then a quiet area that helps mothers and babies to relax can help. Even malnourished mothers can still make plenty of milk.
If a baby becomes ill, the best thing that the mother can do is to continue breastfeeding to provide her baby with human antibodies that fight the illness.
Some might argue that it is important to procure and encourage formula use in a disaster but this is not recommended as there are a number of disadvantages to formula use during an emergency or disaster. These include:
- The formula may become contaminated (or the water used to mix it may be contaminated)
- Sterilization of bottles may not be possible, or electricity may not be available for refrigeration.
Tips for Breastfeeding During a Disaster
Alcohol-based wipes and hand sanitizers aren’t as effective as soap and water, but as you might not have water available it is better to put these into your survival kit. You’re also going to need diapers and baby wipes.
We mentioned before that a mother can still produce milk even while stressed, but it is still important that you learn to relax yourself to ensure a better flow of milk for the baby.
It can help to take some deep breaths or use a meditative technique that works for you to promote relaxation. Breastfeeding releases hormones that helps both mother and baby to feel calm.
Find Ways to Express Without Power
If you need to express your milk during a disaster situation, don’t worry if there is no power for your pump.
Learn how to hand-express your milk long before any disaster strikes. You may also consider looking into a manual pump which is lightweight and easy to use.
If you have the means of boiling water then the World Health Organization recommends a boiled and then cooled (but still warm) jar or bottle placed on your breast can help to draw out the milk.
It doesn’t matter if it was two weeks ago, or even two years ago, if you have lactated before, there is a possibility that you can re-establish lactation by stimulating your breasts every two hours.
The best way to stimulate the breast is to offer it to your baby directly. Don’t be discouraged if you do not get a full supply right away, but this is entirely doable, and often much safer than using formula.
If you suspect that power loss is imminent, make sure that your freezer is full beforehand. Fill any spaces with some water bottles or even crumpled newspaper. The reason for doing this is that the items in your freezer will stay frozen for longer as less warm air can get around.
Frozen items will stay frozen for up to 48 hours providing the freezer is full and the door is kept closed. This time can be cut in half if it is only half-full.
Once the milk is completely thawed, you should use it within 24 hours. Thawed milk should never be refrozen.
While we mentioned earlier that donor human milk is a better option than formula, it is not without risks. But breastfeeding in a natural disaster situation, you may find yourself weighing the risk/benefit situation in a different light.
If you yourself have plenty and no known infections, you might volunteer to share your milk, especially if another mother is separated from her baby, or if she has died in the disaster.
If you yourself or somebody you know has breastfed during a Disaster, please do get in touch and share your own experiences or insight.