Hurricane Irene and Emergency Breastfeeding

Fortunately, I have never had to evacuate during a natural disaster though I came close this summer when one of the New Mexico wildfires burned less than 10 miles from my home. I did, however, have to consider what I would take with me if I had to leave the house suddenly and concluded that the only things irreplaceable were the family photographs. Photos were also one of the Four Ps evacuation experts suggested we take during our fire season this year: Photos, Papers, Pets, and Prescriptions.

If you’re the mom of a baby, an emergency is a time when you are especially grateful that you are breastfeeding. We all know that breastfeeding has major health benefits for both babies and moms, but we seldom think of breastfeeding as literally live-saving. In the May-June 2006 edition of La Leche League’s New Beginnings, Jennifer Noll writes about the advantages of breastfeeding after her house was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, ”My exclusively breastfed baby stayed hydrated in the sweltering heat. I did not have to worry about mixing formula at a time when we could not shower or flush a toilet.”

Pam Wiggins, La Leche League Leader and lactation consultant, quotes Jennifer and others whose lives were saved by breastfeeding in her article “911 Breastfeeding.” (Mothering, November/December 2007) (now available as a reprint) Wiggins reassures mothers that the stress of an emergency will not make their milk dry up and that even starving women can sustain breasfeeding babies for a while.

Wiggins also states that even when a baby is weaned, the mother can nurse again. This is called relactation and is recommended by the American Academy of Peditatrics (AAP) in case of an emergency. According to the AAP, in “Infant Feeding in a Disaster,” regardless of whether or not a mother has breastfed prior to the crisis, if a mother and baby are together during an emergency, health care workers should provide support for the mother to relactate. In the event that this is impossible or if the mother and child are not together, human donor milk (HIV-negative) is the next method of feeding recommended by the AAP. The last resort is ready-to-feed formula. Powdered formula is not recommended during an emergency.

According to the AAP, there are many disadvantages of formula use during a disaster:

It may not be available.

It may be contaminated.

Water may be contaminated.

Sterilizing formula, bottles or nipples may be impossible.

Prepared formula may not be able to be refrigerated.

Relactation is possible but it depends on how well the baby takes to the breast again and works best with a younger baby. Once the baby begins breastfeeding, it can take time to build up a milk supply again. Supporting a relactating woman is very much like supporting the new mother who is having trouble getting started with breastfeeding. It’s essential for mom and baby to have frequent skin-to-skin contact and sucking, at least every two hours. Milk supply will increase over days and weeks and supplementation can be reduced accordingly. Baby should be watched carefully to make sure he or she is getting enough. Look for plenty of wet diapers and firm skin tone as indicators of well-being. In “911 Breastfeeding,” Wiggins gives detailed instructions for relactation.

Mothers can help one another during an emergency as well. We can donate breastmilk or breasteed another’s baby, something that could be appropriate in an emergency.

Moms are helping one another on where several threads of reassurance and camaraderie were started at the end of last week. One in the New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania tribe; another in North and South Carolina and Tennessee; and yet another in the March 2012 Due Date Club.

A member in New Hampshire is looking for a flashlight and another in Diggin’ in the Earth worries that there is nothing she can do about her plants.

Emergencies bring out the best in people. We unearth new capacities and are more adaptable than we realize. It is reassuring that simple things like breastfeeding, cloth diapers and old school family entertainment are good ideas in the best of times and essential in the worst.



Peggy O’Mara  (101 Posts)

Peggy O’Mara founded in 1995 and is currently its editor-in chief. She was the editor and publisher of Mothering Magazine from 1980 to 2011. The author of Having a Baby Naturally; Natural Family Living; The Way Back Home; and A Quiet Place, Peggy has lectured and conducted workshops at Omega Institute, Esalen, La Leche League International, and Bioneers. She is the mother of four.

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3 thoughts on “Hurricane Irene and Emergency Breastfeeding”

  1. I have always been grateful for breastfeeding when I worry about natural disasters in our area.

    I had ONE issue with this article though:

    “We can donate breastmilk or breasteed another

  2. My “babies” are 30-somethings now, and may someday have their own babies. It does this 68-year-old LL Leader’s heart a world of good to see how far the world has come regarding nursing and childbirth.

  3. Just a few months ago I was woken up to an officer telling me to move my car because the flood waters were rising rapidly. We had just moved to this place about a week prior to the flood and had no idea we were in such danger. In about 10 minutes I had my dogs and baby loaded up and were driving through 12 in of water to get out of the community. I can’t say enough how much easier it is knowing that I grabbed 12 diapers that could get me through and didn’t even have to worry about milk since LO was still EBF. Very good article.

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