This week, some of the worst early-season wildfires in California’s history continued to crave a swathe of destruction along San Diego’s drought-wasted outskirts, threatening to engulf up to 30,000 acres of land.
While Gov. Jerry Brown declared state of emergency in San Diego County due to fires, it is appropriate to keep in mind key facts about breastfeeding in emergencies.
Emergencies often occur when least expected, and sometimes when people are least prepared. They can include a wide range of unsettling events, including personal or family crises, public health emergencies such as a flu pandemic, acts of terror and violence, and natural disasters or weather-related events such as floods and the wildfire the county’s current wildfire destruction.
In an emergency, there may be no clean drinking water. There may be no sterile environment. It may be impossible to ensure cleaning and sterilization of utensils.
Research shows that infants and children are the most vulnerable during emergencies. Nearly 95% of infant and child deaths in emergencies result from diarrhea due to contaminated environment.
Infant formula has been linked to an increase in infant disease and death: it can also be contaminated and requires clean water and fuel to sterilize formula, bottles, and nipples. Lack of electricity also can make it difficult to preserve formula.
On the other hand, breastfeeding saves lives! Human milk is always clean, requires no fuel, water, or electricity, and is available even in the difficult circumstances.
Human milk contains antibodies that fight infection, including diarrhea and respiratory infections common among infants in emergency situations. It also provides infants with perfect nutrition, including 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.
Mothers can, and should, breastfeed in an emergency. The safest food in an emergency is the mother’s own milk. Donor human milk is the next best option. Mothers who cannot directly feed their babies can also be supported to express their milk.
According to United States Breastfeeding Committee, even mothers who are stressed and malnourished mothers can still make plenty of milk. Mothers who have already discontinued breastfeeding may be able to restart breastfeeding, known as “relactation”. If a baby or mother becomes ill, the best thing the mother can to is continue breastfeeding to provide her baby with human antibodies that fight the illness.
According to American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), breastfeeding is the best infant nutrition choice during a disaster. Support makes the difference. The AAP encourages pediatricians to support breastfeeding during a disaster with the following actions:
- Keep families together.
- Create safe havens for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers. These heavens should provide security, counseling, water, and food. Pediatricians can contribute using offices, hospitals, or other shelters.
- Assure mothers that human milk can contribute significant nutrition in the absence of safe complementary foods for the first year of life and beyond.
- Advocate for optimal feeding options for orphaned infants, including HIV-negative donor human milk.
- Assist new mothers to initiate breastfeeding within one hour of birth, promote exclusive breastfeeding for six months, and encourage breastfeeding for at least one year of longer.
- Provide support to breastfeeding through assessment of the infant’s hydration and nutritional status.
- In situations where human milk is not available, recommend ready-to-feed formula. Powdered formula is the last resort. Use concentrated or powered formula only if bottled or boiled water is available.
- Advocate for breastfeeding promotion, protection, and support with relief agencies and workers. Infant feeding practices and resources should be assessed, coordinated, and monitored throughout the disaster.
TO-WEN TSENG 曾多聞