Supporting breastfeeding mothers in emergencies

Women breastfeed inside a mother-baby tent at the Buruun School of Fisheries evacuation center. The tent provides a safe space for women to breastfeed their children and receive counselling on infant and young child feeding practices from trained volunteers and health workers. ©UNICEF Philippines/2017/Bobby Lagsa

Breastfeeding gives children the best start in life by providing them with the essential nutrients to support their optimal growth and development. However, there are parents and caregivers who think that expensive milk formula is superior to breast milk. It’s not. Unlike milk formula, breast milk is always accessible and provides the perfect nutrition for children.

Infants should be exclusively breastfed (given only breast milk and nothing else) during their first 6 months of life for their optimal growth, development and health. But in Lanao del Sur province, 1 in 3 children are weaned early. In most cases in poor areas like Lanao del Sur, the milk formula given to babies is over-diluted and does not meet their nutritional requirements. This contributes to the increased prevalence of wasting and stunting among children below 5 years old.

This situation worsened when an armed group attacked Marawi City in Lanao del Sur in May 2017. The armed conflict forced more than 300,000 people, thousands of them infants and young children, to flee and seek shelter in evacuation centers and host communities in nearby provinces.

Overcrowding, shortage of supplies, influx of milk formula donations, lack of clean water, and the absence of safe spaces for mothers and children in evacuation centers — especially in the first few weeks of their displacement — contributed to the undermining of breastfeeding. The scarcity of nutritious food and anxiety caused by displacement also affected the ability of pregnant and lactating women to produce breast milk.

Women attend a breastfeeding counselling session led by Nadine Casiño of Modern Nanays of Mindanao at a mother-baby tent . Here, she teaches mothers a massage technique that helps them express more breast milk. ©UNICEF Philippines/2017/Bobby Lagsa

Nutrition partners acted early to address the needs of breastfeeding mothers affected by the armed conflict. Government, civil society organizations and international organizations working on infant and young child feeding (IYCF) programs include: Action Against Hunger, BANGUN ARMM of the Department of Social Welfare and Development, Department of Health, Health Organization for Mindanao, Modern Nanays of Mindanao, The Moroprenuer Inc., National Nutrition Council, Nutritionist-Dietitians’ Association of the Philippines, Samaritan’s Purse and UNICEF.

Providing a safe and supportive environment helps women continue breastfeeding during emergencies. Counselling groups, education sessions and relactation sit-downs help reduce anxiety for breastfeeding women, while community kitchens provide them with nutritious food that helps in producing breast milk.

“I wasn’t used to breastfeeding before, but now I will continue to breastfeed my children even when we’ve gone back to Marawi.”

Saima Mama, a 25-year-old mother of two, had never tried breastfeeding her young children until she attended one of the IYCF counselling sessions in the evacuation center conducted by Modern Nanays of Mindanao.

“I learned that breastfeeding is very important to keep my children healthy. It’s also important that I keep my body clean and eat healthy food to give my children nutritious breastmilk,” she said.

As displaced people wait for the government to clear the damage in Marawi and declare the city safe for residents to return to, mothers like Saima are already giving the best start in life for their infants by breastfeeding them.

“I wasn’t used to breastfeeding before, but now I will continue to breastfeed my children even when we’ve gone back to Marawi,” she said.

By Richel V. Umel

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