Supporting breastfeeding mothers when disaster strikes

Breastfeeding is a free, amazing source of nutrition. But as any new mom can attest to, it can also be complicated even under the best circumstances, and some are unable. So when lives are disrupted by conflict and disasters, experts say it’s worth an extra effort to support breastfeeding mothers.

Newborns and infants, pregnant women, and breastfeeding mothers are the most vulnerable in times of conflict and disaster. They are in emotional distress, homeless, they’ve lost loved ones, and are often struggling to get adequate nutrition. They may be fleeing or living in the open without clean water and sanitation.

“It’s not easy to continue to breastfeed after an emergency, when mothers and systems are put under pressure,” says staffer Minnie Portales of World Vision in the Philippines.

After Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines in 2013, many mothers told World Vision staff they were too stressed to breastfeed and instead gave their babies water to fill them up and quiet them. Without vital nutritional knowledge, their infants were at risk of malnutrition from diarrhea. These vulnerable moms needed a safe place to get support and education.

World Vision Philippines set up 14 Women and Young Children Space (WAYCS) in the disaster areas after Typhoon Haiyan. ©2014 World Vision.
World Vision Philippines set up 14 Women and Young Children Space (WAYCS) in the disaster areas after Typhoon Haiyan. ©2014 World Vision.

A safe space for women to breastfeed

“It is very important to have space for women and children where they can have protection and privacy as well as some normalcy,” says Weihui Wang, a child protection expert with World Vision.

In 2015, Weihui set up Women and Young Children Friendly Spaces in Serbia for breastfeeding mothers on the refugee route to Europe. In a roadside tent women found a comfortable setting to get diapers and supplies, breastfeed their babies, let toddlers play, interact, and learn about child health and nutrition.

In long-term disaster settings like Typhoon Haiyan and Nepal after the 2015 earthquake, programs for nursing mothers gave them a quiet place to gather while they were displaced.

Myrna, a mother of four, says it was a big relief to bring Mary Rose, her youngest, to one of these spaces after Typhoon Haiyan.

“When I come here, baby Mary Rose and I can relax, and I can forget my problems and anxieties,” Myrna says. “I also learned a lot of things with other moms.”

While they are nursing or changing diapers, mothers hear from health workers about the importance of de-worming for children, pre- and post-natal health care, issues of gender-based violence, and other health and nutrition-related topics.

 

Well-meaning help can cause harm

Baby formula is high on the list of supplies that well-meaning people want to donate when an emergency strikes, says Minnie Portales. But large amounts of free formula can have the unintended consequence of discouraging breastfeeding among mothers who could continue to breastfeed with the right support.

The 1989 earthquake in Armenia is a prime example. Many aid organizations provided large amounts of free infant formula to families after this disaster. Subsequent marketing by baby food companies helped continue the trend. Breastfeeding in Armenia declined dramatically after the quake, and 25 years later it was still down by 20 percent.

Other measures for optimal breastfeeding that reduce child deaths were low, too. Only 36 percent of newborns were breastfed within an hour of birth, and only 35 percent were fed breast milk exclusively during their first six months.

Manushak Grigoryan, an Armenian mother of two, grew up in a society that didn’t value breastfeeding. “Breastfeeding was complicated with my first baby,” she says, “so I easily replaced [breast milk] with formula, and then with cow’s milk.”

She wishes she’d had the knowledge and encouragement she needed to continue breastfeeding her first child. Now, with new knowledge and support, Manushak is successfully breastfeeding her second baby.

Written by Kathryn Reid. Edited by Rachael Boyer. Reporting by Ani Chitemyan in Armenia and Crislyn Felisilda, Aaron Aspi, Monalinda Cadiz, and Hasanthi Jayamaya in the Philippines.

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