World Breastfeeding Week 2009 – Breastfeeding In Emergencies

10 06 2009

Breastfeeding: A Vital Emergency Response
Are you ready?


  • To draw attention to the vital role that breastfeeding plays in emergencies worldwide.
  • To stress the need for active protection and support of breastfeeding before and during emergencies.
  • To inform mothers, breastfeeding advocates, communities, health professionals, governments, aid agencies, donors, and the media on how they can actively support breastfeeding before and during an emergency.
  • To mobilise action and nurture networking and collaboration between those with breastfeeding skills and those involved in emergency response.


  • Children are the most vulnerable in emergencies – child mortality can soar from 2 to 70 times higher than average due to diarrhoea, 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.

This year’s WABA World Breastfeeding Week, August 1-7 2009, is concentrating on breastfeeding in emergency situations.
Such emergencies are often closer than we think, given the problematic nature of powdered infant formula, with its need of both heated clean water and excellent hygiene conditions for its safe use. And it’s so easy to think you are insulated from the harm it can cause to not breastfeed, if you live in a world where clean water and heating for it is common place. The simple fact is that clean water and heating materials are often casualties within hours in even minor emergencies. I once spent a week without water in Glasgow, when the pipes froze solid, and we had to resort to bottled water to drink and wash in. Ice storms, such as the one that hit Glasgow, can freeze you out of water in a matter of hours.
Hurricane Katriona, which hit New Orleans in the USA, wrecked even the sophisticated support structures we associate with being ‘In the West’. Babies went hungry when clean water and heating disappeared in the floods – often the formula disappeared too. The worst story I’ve heard of Katriona to date, was the Mum left on a roof for five days with her formula fed two week old baby. The most distressing part of this tale is not that the baby died a few hours after rescue… it was that the Mum was then treated for engorgement of her recently post-partum breasts. That we’ve divorced ourselves so completely from our normative biology – to the point that mothers and new babies were being discharged out of maternity units into the hurricane zone, with doctors unable to say the words “You’re putting your baby’s life at risk.” and that a distraught mother watched her baby slowly dehydrate to the point of death, with milk in her own breasts… leaves me bewildered and speechless. Truly speechless.
Formula in baby bottles in emergencies is never the answer: that much is undeniable. Sometimes, formula given in an easily cleaned stainless steel cup, is a short term solution to the mother being supported to relactate, in order to feed her baby safely as she rebuilds their lives and her community. Or whilst a grandmother relactates to feed her grandchild if the mother has died. Yet well intentioned support agencies, and individuals, still set about gathering stores of donated formula, donated baby bottles, and trying to ship them to mothers who will watch their babies grow sick and die from such well intentioned recklessness. Worse, many breastfeeding mothers in communities in such calamity, often respond to the free giving out of formula and baby bottles, by stopping breastfeeding themselves.
Donate a baby bottle and formula in emergency: donate death.
Again, that such a basic connection to our own biology is severed, in times of such extreme stress and the need for it is at its greatest… speechless.
World Breastfeeding Week have produced a variety of excellent resources to support this year’s them, and they can be found here.
There is a pledge scheme for those who can run local events to raise awareness of this crucial issue. Details here.
I’ll be passing on other materials in the run up to August. Please propagate information and the URLs about WBW far and wide – help get the message out.




5 responses

10 06 2009
Mell Fraze

Love this 🙂 Mothering ran an article (I think in 2007) about this exact thing. This is so important, even for us here in the USA, you never now when disaster will strike & emergency preparedness can make a huge difference in how well you survive. I wish that this was required education for all mom's to be.

11 06 2009

I was astonished at the story of the mother sitting on the roof after Katrina and not breastfeeding her child to the point that the infant died. Unbelievable! As I'm sure you discuss on your blog, it's also quite simple for mothers to relactate for their children in the event of an emergency.

18 06 2009
Valerie W. McClain

Healthy premature infants in New Orleans were released earlier than normal, prior to Hurricane Katrina's landfall. One of those premature babies was released and evacuated with his parents to Shreveport, north of New Orleans. The infant was bottlefed and the family lived in shelters for awhile in Shreveport. Eventually the family found a place to live. The infant was difficult to feed and the mother eventually gave the infant organic whole milk. The baby died at 5 months of age. The parents were accused of starving the infant to death. The judicial system (they waived a trial by jury) prounounced them guilty and both are serving life in prison sentences. Louisiana is considered to have one of the worst penal systems in the world.Did the parents have easy access to health care? Not from what I have read about Shreveport after Katrina hit (they housed some 50,000 evacuees)New Orleans. The impact of Hurricanes is not just in the local areas, but will stress and strain all health care systems in the surrounding areas. Were these parents fully informed of the risks of bottlefeeding during an emmergency? No. Are they guilty of the infant's death? Their only guilt is ignorance. The guilt should be placed on a government that refuses to take breastfeeding as a "safety net" for those in poverty. The parrish (Caddo Parrish) has an infant mortality rate of approximatedly 32% per 1000 infants. The belief that only developing countries are at risk from bottlefeeding is a false premise that perpetuates the continued high infant mortality rates of poor families in the USA.

20 06 2009
ms leo

I really enjoyed this post. It is amazing how so many women do not know how their bodies work. I could go on and on about this subject as it is something I feel very passionately about! My son just turned 12 months old and has nver had a drop of formula – he is a very happy breastfed baby! I was wondering if you might be able to give a source or tell me where to find information about the mother on the roof during Katrina. It is a story I would like to share. Thank you for all the work you do to inform women about breastfeeding!!! I beleive it is very important work!!

26 07 2009

Hi,I found your link today as I have been preparing content for the upcoming breastfeeding world week. I was amazed that we both had the logo on our blogs!! Like minds indeed. :-)During the Katrina tragedy, it kept going through my mind over and over, if these women only breastfed, they would at least have some milk for their babies. It was appalling that no dialogue took place about this subject in the general media.Nice to find you here. I will be sure to check in regularly.

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