Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Breastfeeding is a Lifeline in an Emergency Situation

Every year the first week of August is set aside as World Breastfeeding Week. This year's theme is "Breastfeeding is a vital emergency response. When a disaster strikes, everyone should be ready!" The World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action, (WABA), reminds both mothers and health care workers that emergencies can happen anywhere in the world. In their press release, they point out that infants and young children are especially vulnerable to malnutrition, illness, and death in these situations. Whatever the emergency –from earthquake to conflict, from floods to the flu pandemic – the story is the same: breastfeeding is a lifeline and a shield that protects infants in emergencies.

According to their press release, the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF recommendations - early initiation and exclusive breastfeeding until six months of age and continued breastfeeding for two years or beyond - are even more critical in emergencies. Breastfeeding is the one safe and secure source of food and fluid for infants - instantly available, providing active protection against illness and keeping an infant warm and close to his/her mother. It also reduces the risk of post-partum hemorrhage in the mother, the leading cause of maternal mortality worldwide. In the challenging and risky environment of an emergency, how infants are fed is key to their survival.

The rationale behind this year's theme includes the following points:

  • Children are the most vulnerable in emergencies – child mortality can soar from 2 to 70 times higher than average due to diarrhea, respiratory illness and malnutrition.
  • Breastfeeding is a life saving intervention and protection is greatest for the youngest infants. Even in non-emergency settings, non-breastfed babies under 2 months of age are six times more likely to die.
  • Emergencies can happen anywhere in the world. Emergencies destroy what is 'normal,' leaving caregivers struggling to cope and infants vulnerable to disease and death.
  • During emergencies, mothers need active support to continue or re-establish breastfeeding.
  • Emergency preparedness is vital. Supporting breastfeeding in non-emergency settings will strengthen mothers' capacity to cope in an emergency.

WABA is quick to point out that when an emergency strikes, simple measures can make all the difference in the world. Emergency preparedness is the key to quick appropriate actions. Mothers need to be secure and have priority access to food for the family, water, shelter and safe places to breastfeed. I recently read about a victim of Hurricane Katrina who was stuck with her newborn on a roof for many hours. When they were rescued, the baby was severely dehydrated and later died in the hospital. The nutritionist who reported the situation noted sadly that if this mother had been nursing her baby, the baby would probably still be alive. It doesn't matter whether a mother lives in a third world country or in a western nation, the ability to nurse her baby may just be the factor that saves his life.


  1. Thank you so much for your blog. You have been a real source of encouragement to me since I found you just a few weeks back. It is so nice to have a seasoned mother give input into my life. My mother passed away 2 years ago and often I miss the parenting advice and encouragement she would give me. Thank you for filling in in just a small way what I lost.
    I have 2 little girls. Hadassah 3 1/2, Kate 1 1/2 and #3 due in Feb. I was just thinking as I read through your blog post today that in an emergency I would be able to feed all three of my children. Even though the oldest is no long breast fed and the younger is slowly weaning they all are familiar with the process and would be willing to breast feed if necessary in an emergency. What a blessing that God has given us this ability as mothers to be the life sustaining nourishment our children need.

  2. Niina,
    Thanks so much for your kind comment. I'm so sorry that you don't have your mom during this special season of your life! If you ever need someone to talk to, feel free to call - I count it a real blessing to be able to encourage any mom that the Lord puts in my path! The store number is 256-489-2590, and if I'm not there, they'll gladly give you my cell phone number!

    It really is a blessing that God designed such a wonderful, nurturing relationship for mother and child to share!