Supporting Breastfeeding

La Leche League Canada

Breastfeeding: A Vital Emergency Response

on November 18, 2013

The shock of experiencing a disaster or emergency will NOT cause a mother’s milk to dry up.  Stress does not prevent production of milk but it may temporarily interfere with its flow.  Breastfeeding mothers have lower stress hormone levels than non-breastfeeding mothers. Keeping mothers and babies together, in a protected area making sure the child keeps suckling is the best way to help milk flow well.

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The risk of dehydration from diarrhea due to contaminated water used to mix infant formula is more dangerous to a baby than the risks associated with a mother breastfeeding with a low milk supply.  Diarrhea will deplete a baby’s body fluids rapidly, which can be fatal. A breastfeeding baby who is getting just 65% of the calories he needs will likely maintain weight and will be adequately hydrated.  Even mothers who are only partially breastfeeding should be encouraged to increase the baby’s time at the breast and avoid using unsafe mixtures of formula.

In many global disasters, donors send infant formula to agencies or humanitarian organizations for use during disasters or emergencies.  This results in distributing formula packs to mothers without proper assessment causing breastfeeding mothers to use formula even when their babies did not require any, leading to disrupted milk production and widespread increases in sickness and disease.

All people can help ensure safe infant and child feeding in emergencies.  Anyone can encourage a breastfeeding mother to continue breastfeeding during emergencies and provide shelter, a safe space, food or a calm presence. All citizens can help by ensuring that community groups develop sound emergency plans for safe feeding of infants and the critical role of breastfeeding.

Mother-to-mother breastfeeding support groups can best help during emergencies.  Even before emergencies occur, mother-to-mother organizations can prepare for emergencies by discussing ways that they could staff a safe place if large numbers of people are made homeless; they can also make contact with local emergency authorities and community groups and tell them about “Infant feeding in Emergencies (IFE)”. While orphaned surviving babies have been saved by wet nursing in many disasters, the best place for a child to receive mother’s milk is in the arms of the baby’s own mother. If the mother has physical contact with her baby, she can breastfeed. Wet nursing is considered when a baby is orphaned and the need is properly identified.


During an emergency, it may appropriate for health facilities to distribute donated infant formula from other countries ONLY if ALL these criteria are met:  the label indicates it is well within the best before date; it is administered by cup instead of artificial teats; and it is mixed with flour products to make baked goods.  These are all valid guidelines to lessen harm from the distribution of infant formula but they are not enough. If a baby must be fed formula after a careful needs assessment, it must be ensured that the caregiver can properly handle the products, knows about the risks and will be able to provide enough for the entire time the baby needs it. Regular follow up to assess the baby’s health and weight is important.  Mothers who receive distributed formula often do not know how to read foreign labels and may also not know the dangers of improper mixing. They may unknowingly cause harm by trying to make the amounts last longer, diluting the formula and /or using bacteria and parasite laden water.

 If a mother with a newborn baby who is being fed formula is stranded during an emergency without clean water or electricity, she should be encouraged to begin breastfeeding as soon as possible.  A mother trying to relactate and who breastfeeds frequently will find her supply can increase approximately 1 oz. (29.5 ml) per day. Some milk is likely to be produced even if the baby is older than 4 weeks. Breastfeeding will comfort the baby and help to relax the mother during this stressful time and also keep the baby warm. Heating formula is not vital and sterilizing bottles and teats would be impossible for this stranded mother.

Adapted from:

What to do with Frozen Breastmilk if the Power Goes out

Breastmilk in Freezer - Power Out!

Breastmilk in Freezer – Power Out!

by Sandra Yates, LLLC Professional Liaison Department




If you need more information or have a breastfeeding problem or concern, you are strongly encouraged to talk directly to a La Leche League Leader.  In Canada, Leaders can be located by clicking  or  Internationally

*top photo by Angelica Carballo used with permission.





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