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Facts for Life

Emergencies: preparedness and response

Supporting Information


Mothers, even malnourished mothers, can still breastfeed even under the stressful conditions of emergencies.

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People often believe that during emergencies many mothers can no longer breastfeed due to stress or inadequate nutrition. This is a misconception – it is not correct. Mothers who lack food or who are undernourished can still breastfeed adequately. They should be given extra fluids and foods to protect their health and well-being and that of the child. Fathers and other family members can support breastfeeding mothers with food preparation and childcare.

Stress can temporarily interfere with the flow of breastmilk. But it does not need to stop breastmilk production, if mothers and infants remain together and are supported in initiating and continuing breastfeeding. Safe havens, as in refugee camps and shelters, can be established where women can go to receive support.

In some cases breastfeeding is not possible. These include children temporarily or permanently separated from their mothers, mothers who are very sick, mothers who have stopped breastfeeding for some time, mothers who have not been able to restart breastfeeding, and HIV-positive mothers who have chosen not to breastfeed.

In these situations, for children under 12 months, the most appropriate food is a high-quality breastmilk substitute (infant formula). Safe preparaton of the breastmilk substitute requires fuel, safe water and equipment, and preferably the guidance of a trained health worker. The breastmilk substitute should be stored and prepared under hygienic conditions with water from a safe source, using a cup, not a bottle.

Breastmilk substitutes should never be distributed in an uncontrolled manner alongside food aid and without attention to the conditions required for safe preparation. They should not displace breastfeeding, a baby's best protection against illness in an emergency situation.

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