I traveled in Burma in the early 1990's with a good friend. The country was beautiful (especially Pagan, shown to the right) and the political repression was palpable. One memory: My friend became quite ill, and we found a doctor who came to our hotel and treated her. When we asked how much we could pay her, she refused to accept anything. We were so grateful for her help, and asked for her address so that we could send her a gift when we got home. She wouldn't give us her address, telling us that she didn't want to be seen as connected in any way to people outside the country.
But back to the disasters, and the importance of breastfeeding in emergencies. In a disaster such as the one in Burma, breastfeeding can be a life-saving act. Why? In emergencies formula is often not available. If it is available, water supplies are often compromised. Formula mixed with contaminated water can cause diarrhea and dehydration, which can quickly become life-threatening to infants. Power to sterilize and refrigerate formula is also often not available.
Sometimes, well meaning humanitarian efforts result in such an influx of formula that efforts to protect and support breastfeeding are disrupted. This is such a concern that in 1994 the World Health Organization adopted the following policy, urging member states to "exercise extreme caution when planning, implementing, or supporting emergency relief operations, by protecting, promoting, and supporting breastfeeding for infants," and to ensure that formula is distributed only under specific conditions.
Still, there is a lot of confusion about the role of breastfeeding in these situations. INFACT Canada has a great write up taking on myths about breastfeeding in emergencies, which I've posted below:
MYTH 1: Malnourished mothers cannot breastfeed.
In virtually all cases, a sub-optimally nourished mother can breastfeed her child. The important response is to feed the mother so that she can feed her child. It is far safe and more effective to provide nutritional support for the mother than to risk her infant's health by feeding breastmilk subsitutes. Mothers in these situations need help and support to enable them to breastfeed.
MYTH 2: Stress makes a mother's milk dry up.
Although extreme stress or fear may temporarily reduce a mother's milk supply, this response is often of short duration. On the other hand, breastfeeding produces hormones that have a calming effect on mother and baby and creates an inseparable bond between the mother and her child. There is virtually no abandonment of babies in emergency situations when mother and baby are breastfeeding and kept together.
MYTH 3: Babies with diarrheal disease need water or tea.
Breastmilk contains about 90% water. Exclusive breastfeeding provides all the water, nutrition and immunology a baby needs, without the risk of contamination. Feeding an infant water can introduce disease-causing bacteria and other contaminants, especially if safe water is scarce or unavailable. It is only in the case of severe diarrhea that infants may need rehydration fluids in addition to breastmilk.
MYTH 4: Mothers cannot resume lactation once breastfeeding has stopped.
Mothers and babies can restart breastfeeding even after a period of not breastfeeding. Increased skin-to-skin contact and frequent access to the breast helps to increase milk supply and enables mothers to resume full breastfeeding. This can be critical for babies during emergencies.