Breastfeeding in Emergencies
Updated: Feb 11
We start the year off with a vision of planning and preparation. This is not a doomsday post and is not intended to incite fear—just to help you think and plan ahead!
We Coloradans have the privilege of enjoying a wide variety of weather conditions throughout each of the seasons. Overall, our weather is mild, even with the occasional blizzard, tornado or flood. Most of us are also fortunate to live in safe, stable communities with easy access to neighbors/family/friends and conveniences like grocery stores, consistent electricity, safe water sources, and phone/internet access.
Emergencies, or unexpected situations can happen any time, anywhere, whether we are at home, or if we are away on vacation. Recent news stories about the devastating Australian bush fires and people suffering in war-torn countries not only hurt our hearts, they also highlight the importance of understanding our environment and having alternative plans ready. When we do experience extreme conditions like a natural disaster, a public health concern like the flu, or a personal crisis like a house fire, it’s important to be prepared ahead of time to keep our families safe, well-nourished and to help us cope.
Breastfeeding Saves Lives
Breastmilk helps protect our most vulnerable populations (infants and children) during emergencies. Human milk contains antibodies that fight infection and provides babies with perfect nutrition. Here are a few key concepts to think about.
Breastfeeding is always sanitary and safe and requires no electricity or water which may be in short supply after an emergency. If an emergency occurs, it is important for you to continue breastfeeding to keep your milk production up and protect your baby against disease and malnutrition.
Breastfeeding releases hormones that help you and your baby relax and stay calm, which is especially important for both you and your baby in a stressful and traumatic situation. Some mothers worry about not being able to breastfeed in a crisis but stress does not impact milk production. Stress can slow the release of milk so it’s important to keep your baby close to you, offer the breast often, look at your baby and make eye contact, think about how much you love them; this will release hormones that make the milk flow and relax both of you.
Breastfeeding helps lower pain levels in babies, so if your baby should become injured, breastfeeding frequently can help keep your baby more comfortable.
Mothers who breastfeed are able to keep their babies warm to prevent hypothermia.
Know how to hand express your milk—if electricity is not available, relying on your breast pump may not be an option. Washing pump parts may also not be possible, especially if there is not safe water available. The video in the link above shows a new mom in the early days after birth when more milk is coming in. The principles of hand expression are the same later on but it’s important to know how to do this from the beginning!
If you are exclusively- or partially- feeding your baby with expressed breastmilk, cleaning bottles/nipples may not be possible. You may need to plan on using a cup or spoon, or have a supply of single-use bottles/nipples available to give your milk to your baby.
Kellymom also offers tips for breastfeeding in emergencies and for safe-guarding your frozen milk supply if your electricity goes out. For information on protecting milk left behind or taking frozen milk with you, please visit lllusa.org.
If you are in temporary housing or a shelter, ask for a quiet area to feed your baby or express milk. A curtain or partition, or a sling or wrap can provide a little privacy.
It is sometimes possible for a woman to start breastfeeding again (re-lactate), even if she has already weaned her baby. An IBCLC can help you.
After a disaster, well-meaning people often donate infant formula. Remember that your milk is the safest food for your baby. Always. Lack of clean water to mix with the formula and to clean the bottles can make your baby sick.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help! Mothers and babies need support, especially after an emergency. Ask emergency workers to help you find an IBCLC or other breastfeeding specialist who can help with your specific questions and concerns.
What to Have Ready
Australian breastfeeding experts recently published a list of what you may need when putting together an emergency evacuation kit. As much as I love the language (yes, the Siri voice on my phone is Australian male) and terms like “nappies,” I have re-created the list with US language and quantities. Please click here to access and download the Emergency Preparedness Checklists for Breastfeeding Mothers and Breastmilk Feeding (Pumping) Mothers from Morning Star Moms, Inc. You can also use these checklists as a packing list for when you take a short trip by car.
The simple act of breastfeeding helps you and your baby to be ready for anything!
You are amazing!