Emergencies happen for a lot of different reasons, unfortunately, and while it can be scary to talk about, it's important to be prepared. Emergencies can range from a family crisis or health emergency, to more public crises like a natural disaster. When breastfeeding an infant, there are steps to take to be as prepared as possible.
Infants and Children are Most Vulnerable in an Emergency Situation
Certain populations are more vulnerable than others during a crisis situation, but research has proven that infants and children are the most at-risk. Breastfeeding during emergency situations actually saves lives. Some of the more common problems infants and children face during an emergency are due to environmental factors, including contaminated water and being exposed to pathogens and germs from unsanitary living conditions.
Nearly 95% of infant and child deaths in emergencies result from diarrhea due to contaminated water and an unsanitary environment. Formula-fed children can be more at-risk in these conditions, as formula requires sanitized water which is not always available in an emergency.
Lack of electricity can also make it difficult to properly sanitize, store, and preserve formula, bottles, and nipples, putting children at risk for infection and disease. Additionally, formula can be very difficult to get during a disaster.
Why Breastfeeding is Ideal During an Emergency
Human milk contains antibodies that fight infection, including diarrhea and respiratory infections, which are common among infants in emergency situations. Breastmilk is always sanitary, no matter what the circumstances, and it requires no electricity or fuel even when the situation is very dire.
In addition to the physical benefits of breast milk, breastfeeding releases hormones that reduce anxiety and stress in babies (and mothers too)! The physical contact between the infant and the mother also serves to keep babies protected from harsh environmental conditions.
Many groups pass out food and other supplies to families in need, and this may include formula. If you receive a supply of formula in an emergency situation, there is no reason to give it to your breastfed baby. Instead, you can drink it yourself, give it to your older children, or pass it along to a formula-feeding mother. Continuing to breastfeed your baby in an emergency situation is the healthiest and safest for the baby. If it becomes necessary, older children and adults can also be nourished with breast milk.
How to Be Prepared for an Emergency with Infants and Children
Parents and caregivers of infants can take several steps to help keep their families safe and healthy in the event of a disaster, including:
Prepare an emergency kit that includes a 3-day supply of food and water, health supplies (including medications), baby care and safety supplies, electronics, and important documents, such as emergency telephone numbers. If your baby is old enough for solid foods (six months or older), be sure to have foods available that your baby will eat. Canned foods, especially meat, beans, and vegetables, are important and contain nutrients that are vital to growing babies.
If staying at a shelter or in temporary housing, tell the staff as soon as possible that you have a newborn.
Help your infant sleep safely by bringing a firm, flat surface that your baby can sleep on, as soft bedding, sleeping bags, and blankets can pose a hazard to infants.
Take care of the mother's health as much as possible. It's important for breastfeeding mothers to stay hydrated and get proper nutrition, so be sure to seek help for the mother as well as for the infant.
Mothers CAN Keep Breastfeeding in an Emergency
Mothers continue to lactate in times of physical and emotional stress, but they will need support! Malnourished women and women with medical illnesses can breastfeed as well. Optimal human milk supply is maintained by infant demand, so it's important to keep to your regular feeding schedule as much as possible.
When your baby breastfeeds, your breasts make more milk than they do between feedings, so the more you breastfeed, the more milk you produce. In an emergency situation, you may find that your baby wants to breastfeed almost constantly. You will have plenty of milk if you breastfeed often; don’t limit baby’s time at the breast, but do limit pacifier use.
For some mothers and infants, a mother who has weaned (or is in the process of weaning) can redevelop her milk supply. With enough nipple stimulation and milk removal, it is possible for women to re-lactate, that is, to redevelop a milk supply. The stimulation can be provided by a willing baby or even older child, by hand expression and stimulation, and/or pumping. The process may take several days, or even a couple of weeks. Mothers need much encouragement, a reasonable supply of food and water, and protection from stress to whatever extent possible.
In an emergency situation, a breastfeeding mom may find herself with a young infant who is completely dependent on her. Talking with those around you can be a great source of comfort and information. Other families, community leaders, and healthcare professionals are usually available to give you support, skills and knowledge as well, so it's important to ask for help.
Breastfeeding: Coping with Crisis
In the middle of a crisis, it can be difficult to think of everything you may need, so this helpful pamphlet helps parents be as prepared as possible! Breastfeeding: Coping with Crisis provides tips and ideas for ways families can be prepared (also available in Spanish).
For hospitals, healthcare clinics, or other professionals we offer this pamphlet at only 10 cents/copy if you order 100 or more! Breastfeeding: Coping with Crisis is a must-read for clients of:
OB/GYNs, pediatricians, and family doctors
Breastfeeding: Coping With Crisis reassures new mothers and teaches them how to prepare for and deal with crises—without sacrificing care of their babies. This attractive, full-color, easy-to-read pamphlet explains that breastfeeding is important for both moms and babies, especially during hard times. Moms learn that breastfeeding provides tremendous physical and psychological benefits. The information in this pamphlet is crucial for all parents interested in protecting their families in an uncertain world.
The American Red Cross also has several helpful resources, including how to find the closest open shelter. Be sure to notify the appropriate people at any shelter that you have a breastfeeding infant and ask for any available resources.