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Breastfeeding in Refugee Camps

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Every mother worries about how her baby will feed and be safe. So I was most interested in a webinar about Supporting Breastfeeding in Refugee Camps. It was presented by Sura Al. Samman, BSc. Health and Nutrition Manager with Save The Children in Jordan.

For babies, especially infants, and young children supporting breastfeeding during emergencies is crucial. When exclusive breastfeeding is already part of the culture, that makes a huge difference. In emergencies, it’s still important to help mothers provide this for their children.

“The best emergency response is one that works with her to protect and support her confidence and capacity.”  (Save the Children Jordan)

The good news is that the necessary supplies to help breastfeeding mothers are fairly simple: the women and babies, a place to meet, some nutritious snacks. Save The Children Jordan had a mobile van (like a mobile clinic) which came to the mothers in the refugee camps. That way they could bring the support to many mothers in several camps. The van provided the mothers a calm place to reengage with breastfeeding and receive sensitive, accurate advice.

The frustrating news is the education and myth busting is a very significant part of this work. There are clear guidelines about the use and distribution of formula, and explanations for safe feeding for infants and young children in emergencies. Making these known is part of the work Save the Children does. It surprises me how little some well-meaning Non Governmental Organizations understand about formula vs. breastfeeding.

The most obvious risk of providing donated formula is contamination of the water and bacterial contamination of the powder itself. (This applies to even well supported families in safe environments.) There are additional costs to consider: a daily supply of clean water, fuel and equipment to heat the water, bottles and nipples, trash collection of the empty cans. In times of crisis, this is nearly impossible.

Sura Al. Samman described the most common myths that confuse matters:
• Stress makes milk dry up.  (A mother can rebuild her supply.) 
• Babies with diarrhea need water or tea. (Breastmilk provides the best protection.)
Once breastfeeding has stopped it cannot be resumed. (A mother can rebuild her supply.)
• Mothers who don’t have enough to eat or are malnourished cannot breastfeed. (The body still provides the right nourishment for the baby.)
• Infant formula is better for children than breast milk. (Human breast milk is best for human babies.)

I often hear those same statements in ‘non-refugee’ situations. Helping women, young and older,  to understand breastfeeding is essential. That education supports one generation and prepares it to support the next generation. Ideally, we are preparing for a healthier future, beyond preparing for disasters.

“The best emergency preparedness is a confident, well mother capable of nourishing her child.”  (Save the Children Jordan)

Human breast milk does not require complicated preparations. It’s the best protection for infants, young children and mothers. Just as significantly, it provides a safe place in the most fundamental sense. That’s something we can build from.

The Feeding    by Lou Lipsitz

We sit in the darkness
and the baby drinks from you.
Alive!
I cannot
believe it.

We are silent.
Far off, great explosives
stand in hundreds of holes
sucked out of the planet;
millions of men
who might have befriended each other
prowl the earth’s surface as hunters.

You open your eyes
and look at me
and I see you are crying happily.
The baby sleeps.
You have nourished
what you can, which is
no small triumph
in a starved time.

Lou Lipsitz     copyright 1966