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Breastfeeding: A vital emergency response

© UNICEF/NYHQ2005-0752/Bagla
A woman breastfeeds her 10-month-old son Chamberlain at a health outreach centre in Arong Village on remote Car Nicobar Island, which was affected by the 2004 tsunami. During emergencies, breastmilk can make the difference between life and death.

KUALA LUMPUR, 1 August 2009 – Breastfeeding is a life-saving intervention during emergencies like drought, floods, earthquakes, epidemics, war, civil unrest, and severe political and economic upheaval.

In the wake of such natural and man-made calamities, families are often left without shelter and the basic necessities of life, such as safe water and nutritious food.

According to the World Health Organisation, death rates during emergencies can soar from 2 to 70 times higher than average due to diarrhoea, respiratory illness and malnutrition.

Children, especially infants under five, are the most vulnerable due to the added burden of malnutrition and communicable diseases. It is crucial to ensure that they are adequately cared for and fed, to prevent disability and death among these children.

“Every child has the right to adequate nutrition and access to safe and nutritious food, and both are essential for fulfilling their right to the highest attainable standard of health,” said Mr Youssouf Oomar, UNICEF Representative to Malaysia and Special Representative to Brunei, on the occasion of World Breastfeeding Week 2009.

During emergencies, mothers who breastfeed are able to give their infants clean, safe, sustainable food and water supply, and actively protect their infants from infections.

Emergency risks

Breastmilk is the ideal food for the healthy growth and development of children. It provides valuable protection from infections, which is all the more important in environments lacking adequate water supply and sanitation.

“A newborn infant born into a situation of insecurity and poor sanitation has to live with dirty water, scant food and no shelter. Extreme weather conditions, lack of skilled birth attendance and medical care, and premature birth increase the infant’s health risks even further,” said Mr Youssouf.

Feeding breastmilk substitutes such as infant formula during emergencies offer no immune protection against diseases, and poses health risks because mothers have to depend on the quality and supply of formula, water and fuel for preparation and cleaning of feeding bottles.

Obstacles to breastfeeding

During emergencies, breastmilk can make the difference between life and death. However, the challenging conditions during emergencies can pose obstacles for mothers to continue breastfeeding.

Mothers and families are often misled by myths, for example, “stress dries up breastmilk” or “malnourished women cannot breastfeed”.

Stress can temporarily interfere with the flow of milk, but it does not prevent production of milk. Mothers can continue to breastfeed if they are protected from stress as much as possible and are kept with their babies so that the infant can continue suckling.

Malnourished mothers will continue to produce milk, but they will require extra food and fluids, including micronutrient supplementation, to replenish their own body stores.

Mothers should also be aware that they can increase their milk supply and relactate after having stopped breastfeeding.

Lack of active protection and support for breastfeeding is a big factor in preventing breastfeeding. There is not enough priority given to protection and skilled support for breastfeeding, which means ensuring that mothers are safe and secure, have priority access to food, water, shelter, and if necessary, private places to breastfeed.

The uncontrolled donation and distribution of breastmilk substitutes, such as infant formula, other milk products and bottles during emergencies, can also lead to early and unnecessary cessation of breastfeeding.

Be prepared to protect infants

“Breastfeeding can restore hope and life amid the death, disease and trauma brought about by an emergency,” said Mr Youssouf.

During emergencies, mothers need active support to continue or re-establish breastfeeding, through emergency preparedness.

Mr Youssouf cautioned that even Malaysia was not immune from emergencies, as the tsunami and the frequent floods have demonstrated.

“Emergency preparedness at all levels of policy and practices means everyone can take quick, appropriate actions to ensure that breastfeeding is continued in an emergency,” he said.

Emergency preparedness includes strengthening policy and legislation, building capacity of healthcare and emergency relief staff, strengthening the Baby-Friendly hospital initiative, strengthening infant feeding in normal healthcare and emergency preparedness plans, and establishing a strong breastfeeding culture.

UNICEF encourages accelerated actions by the Government, corporations and NGOs to provide protection and support of breastfeeding both during emergencies and non-emergency times.

“Protecting mothers and establishing a breastfeeding culture is the best way to ensure that our most vulnerable citizens have the best form of protection when they need it the most,” Mr Youssouf concluded.



ABOUT UNICEF and our work around breastfeeding
Guided by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, UNICEF’s programs are anchored on the inherent belief that every child has the right to life and aims to ensure their survival and development. Breastfeeding is recognised as the perfect way to provide the best food for a baby, benefiting children the world over. The WHO/UNICEF Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding recommends that children breastfeed exclusively for the first six months of life, and then continue breastfeeding with adequate complementary food up to two years or beyond. For more information, please visit


Indra Kumari Nadchatram
UNICEF Malaysia
(603) 2095 9157 • (+6) 012 292 6872 

Shiao Eek, Tee
UNICEF Malaysia
(603) 2095 9154 • (+6) 012 207 0138





World Breastfeeding Week 2009

A vital emergency response

1-7 August 2009

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