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Top Ten Tips For Breastfeeding In A Natural Disaster

When a natural disaster strikes, breastfeeding mothers may feel anxious about their ability to continue to properly care for and feed their baby. Use these top ten tips for breastfeeding in a natural disaster.

1. Anticipate a natural disaster; think ahead and pack a bag

Alcohol-based wipes and hand sanitizers aren’t as effective as soap and water, but you might not have water. Bring both. Diapers and baby wipes are critical. Gribble and Berry recommend packing 100 diapers and 200 wipes for an exclusively breastfed baby.

2. Remember that stressed mothers can make plenty of good milk

Certainly, there are stories about mothers being so stressed in a natural disaster that “they have had their milk scared out of them.” These stories get attention because they are alarming, and sad, and more attention-getting than the stories of mothers who keep on lactating in these circumstances. You just don’t hear about those mothers.

Might you have difficulty achieving a let-down reflex in a stressful situation? Absolutely. It can help to take some deep breaths or use a meditative technique that works for you to promote relaxation. Some mothers find it helpful to practice mindfulness, centering their thoughts on their baby and the immediacy of satisfying baby’s needs. Breastfeeding will help you both — the act of breastfeeding causes the release of some hormones that help you and your baby to feel calm.

3. Remember that malnourished mothers can make plenty of good milk

Let’s face it: The human species is programmed for survival! Your milk has everything your baby needs, even if you are underfed in a natural disaster situation. How so? Your body will draw on your stores of nutrients. (This might not be true in situations where there is profound starvation.)

4. Find ways to express your milk without using an electric pump

If you need to express your milk during a disaster situation, don’t be stumped by no electrical power. (Many pumps can be used with a car charger, although fuel may be hard to come by, so use this with caution.) Be prepared by learning how to hand-express your milk long before disaster strikes. This simple skill has many advantages, costs nothing, and since you always have your hands with you, it’s convenient!

A manual (cylinder or other) pump may also work for you. Since they are lightweight and usually have only two parts, they may be easier to care for in a limited-resources, natural disaster situation. Sure, you might not want to use it on a regular basis, but these can be a good back-up, especially in this situation.

If the problem is engorgement, and if you have what you need to boil a wide-mouthed glass jar, such as a mayonnaise jar, you may be all set. As explained in the World Health Organization manual, a boiled and then cooled (but still warm) jar or bottle placed on your breast can help to draw out the milk.

5. Consider relactating to provide your baby’s nutrition

If you have lactated before — whether it’s two weeks ago, two months ago, or two years ago, it’s very likely that you can re-establish lactation by stimulating your breasts every two hours. The best way to stimulate the breast is to offer it to your baby directly. Don’t be discouraged if you do not get a full supply right away, but this is entirely doable, and often much safer than using formula.

You can breastfeed even if you are pregnant. However, if it’s late in your third trimester, you may not get much milk volume because of the hormones of late pregnancy.

6. Prevent your frozen milk from thawing

Prevention is the best strategy. If you suspect that power loss is imminent, make sure your freezer is full. If necessary, add some containers of water or crumpled newspaper to fill the empty space. Why so? Because everything stays frozen for a longer period of time in a full freezer.

Here’s another thing: Find out if any neighbors still have power (or have a generator) and are willing to store your milk. This won’t happen in a widespread emergency situation, but it might work if the power outage is very localized. Just be sure to label your milk!

7. Consider, before discarding your unfrozen milk

According to the USDA, frozen items will stay frozen for up to 48 hours if the freezer is full and the door is kept closed, even if the power is off — and 24 hours if it is half-full. Also, if ice crystals are still present, the milk is still considered to be frozen. Once the milk is completely thawed, you should use it within 24 hours.  Be mindful of the effect that giving it, instead of feeding directly, might have on your milk supply.  Thawed milk should never be refrozen.  Read in depth milk storage guidelines here.

8. Avoid using formula, even if it is distributed for free

It may seem easier to pass the baby to someone else if ready-to-feed bottles of formula are available. It’s not. Formula could have a number of adverse effects on a breastfed baby, including diarrhea or other gastric distress, and it may put him at risk for other health conditions. Also, every time your hungry baby takes formula for a feeding rather than your milk, the lack of stimulation may reduce your milk supply.

Starting a feeding method that relies on clean water isn’t a good idea during an emergency, when your water supply may be compromised.

9. Consider cross-nursing or milk-sharing

Having your baby nurse from another mother, or consume milk expressed by another mother, is not without risks. But breastfeeding in a natural disaster situation, you may find yourself weighing the risk/benefit situation in a different light.

Certainly, if you have an abundant supply, and no known infections, you might volunteer to share your milk, especially if another mother is separated from her baby, or if she has died in the disaster. In 2008, a Chinese police officer (who was a breastfeeding mother of a 6-month-old infant) was instrumental in ensuring the health and well-being of several infants in just such a circumstance.

10. Seek help if you need to dry up your milk due to infant loss

It’s a heart-wrenching idea, and nothing you’ll want to prepare for. But if this happens, and if you do not wish to express your milk, there are steps you can take to dry up your supply. You may want to wait until conditions are sanitary, but if you have access to jasmine leaves (the most well-studied), cabbage leaves, or sage tea, you can try.

Be sure to listen to my short podcast* and my more detailed podcast on breastfeeding in a natural disaster. I also have a lengthy podcast on the latest milk storage guidelines.

Have you breastfed during a natural disaster? Do you have any experience or insight you would like to share?

*Note: This podcast is now part of our new self-learning program, Emergency Preparedness for Infants and Mothers (2.3 L-CERPs).  Click here to purchase.  

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