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Breastfeeding is always best, particularly in emergencies

© UNICEF Indonesia/2009/Sri Sutkojo
UNICEF Indonesia Country Representative Angela Kearney talks to a mother who is breastfeeding her baby at Padang City, West Sumatra.

PADANG, Indonesia, 29 October, 2009 —  The stacks of formula milk donations that had arrived in a former ballroom in the city of Padang, West Sumatra had been quickly removed. While generosity was the underlying motive as local companies rushed to respond to the 30 September earthquake that devasted the Indonesian province, the impact of the donations could have proved fatal.

In a crisis environment, continued breastfeeding for infants remains the best practice. While well-intentioned, the provision of milk substitutes can have a number of serious effects – most notably the increased risk of diarrhoeal disease if formula is made up with contaminated water.

In a crisis environment, continued breastfeeding for infants remains the best practice. While well-intentioned, the provision of milk substitutes can have a number of serious effects – most notably the increased risk of diarrhoeal disease if formula is made up with contaminated water.

Working closely with the Ministry of Health, UNICEF made rapid calls to local and national radio stations asking them to broadcast requests to stop milk substitute donations. Volunteers from a partner organization reminded mothers at temporary shelters not to stop breastfeeding.

The result of these appeals, including a ban on the direct distribution of formula milk to survivors’ babies, was largely positive.

“In disasters, given the likelihood of poorer environmental conditions such as the lower availability of safe water, it is crucial for mothers to continue breastfeeding their children instead of resorting to formula milk,” said Angela Kearney, UNICEF’s Representative in Indonesia.

The day after the earthquake, UNICEF distributed toolkits on Infant Feeding in Emergencies to humanitarian communities and local authorities.  This toolkit was used by Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s second biggest faith-based organization, which had sent their volunteers to distribute aid in a remote village in Agam District.

© UNICEF Indonesia/2009/Lely Djuhari
Desi Fitria chats about her plans to give birth and breastfeed her baby at the temporary shelter in Agam district.

When these volunteers approached Desi Fitria, an 8-month pregnant woman, she expressed her apprehension about delivering her baby at the end of October.

“The health centre I used to go to is completely destroyed. I may have to go to the one about two hours away,” she said. She listened attentively to advice on how breastfeeding in the first hour of birth and exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months would give her baby the best antibodies and nutrition.

“It is so much easier to breastfeed. I don’t have to worry about boiling water and cleaning cups, teats or bottles from there,” she said pointing to a lake, which she and others at a temporary shelter are using as a water source.

Previous experiences in Indonesia have shown that infant formula and powdered milk are common donations during emergencies. Unfortunately, these products are often distributed in an uncontrolled manner and consumed by infants and children who would otherwise be breastfed.

Results of a UNICEF assessment carried out one month after the Yogyakarta earthquake in 2006 indicated that three out of four families with children under six months old had received donations of infant formula. Results have also shown an increase of infant formula consumption from 32 per cent before the earthquake to 43 per cent afterwards. As a consequence, incidences of diarrhoea amongst infants below six months old who received donations of infant formula were twice that of those who did not. Moreover, on average, the rate of diarrhoea amongst children between six months and 23 months was five times the pre-earthquake rate.

It has been firmly established that exclusive breast-feeding for the first six months of an infant's life followed by continued breast-feeding with the appropriate supplementation until the age of two is the single most effective means of guaranteeing infants’ health and normal growth.

The benefits of breast-feeding extend beyond infancy. Infants who are breast-fed appropriately in their early childhood grow to be bigger, stronger, better educated, smarter, and better adjusted than those who aren't. With campaigns to socialize the practice of breastfeeding by mothers of young infants being intensified throughout the country, communities facing sudden emergencies and natural disasters are becoming increasingly prepared to care for their infants under these stressful conditions.

 

 

 

 

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