Important things to know about breastfeeding a baby

• Breastfeeding is the best way to keep a baby and mother healthy during any emergency or disaster situation.

• A baby needs breastmilk only for the first six months of her/his life – no water, juice or other foods are needed.

• At six months solid foods are added to a baby’s diet but it’s important to keep breastfeeding for as long as possible.

• Even if a mother has stopped breastfeeding months ago she can get her milk supply to increase and breastfeeding may start again.

More key points:

• Breastfeeding provides a safe and sustainable way of feeding an infant

• Breastfeeding women require support and access to information that will enable them to start breastfeeding, maintain breastfeeding and reinitiate breastfeeding if necessary.

• Babies are particularly vulnerable to infection and illness due to their immature immune systems.

• Remember that breastfeeding is much more than food alone. Breastmilk is the perfect food, made especially for human babies, but it also gives the baby’s digestive tract protection from infection.

• Babies who are being bottle-fed on infant formula during an emergency represent a higher risk group of babies and parents require information, support and access to the means for safe preparation of these feeds.

• Any babies using bottles and teats for any liquids during an emergency are at a greater risk of infection.

• Easily cleaned cups without a rim are the best option for infants who are having infant formula in emergency situations.

Mythology about breastfeeding in emergency situations

Myth 1 – Stress and breastfeeding

One of the most common myths about stress and breastfeeding is that women who are experiencing stress ‘lose’ their breastmilk. This is not true.

Stress does not affect the hormone that makes breastmilk which is called Prolactin but it does have a short-term effect on the other important breastfeeding hormone called Oxytocin.

What this means is that the milk is still all there inside the breasts ready for the baby and ready to be made in response to the baby feeding, but the let-down reflex which starts the milk flowing is temporarily stopped. The World Health Organisation explain this as a positive mechanism that stops milk flowing at difficult moments – for example when an early human mother was fleeing with her baby from a wild animal – it is helpful that the milk does not start flowing while running but once mother and baby are safe and sheltered the milk flow starts again when the baby goes to the breast.

Everyone is highly likely to be stressed during and after an emergency and disaster situation. Breastfeeding is an amazingly adaptive activity designed to win through despite everything. All a breastfeeding mother has to do is put the baby to the breast frequently and have lots of contact with the baby and the milk flow will start again. Being comforted and receiving support helps mothers. Breastfeeding will help promote healing and calmness.

Myth 2 – Weight loss and breastfeeding

Losing weight will rarely cause a problem for breastfeeding. As mentioned before breastfeeding is an amazingly adaptive and resilient process.

Mothers who lose weight or who are thin will still produce breastmilk and also breastmilk that is of a good enough quality for their babies. Severe starvation may make breastfeeding difficult but this represents a less likely scenario for most emergency situations in New Zealand.

One of the priority adult population groups to receive food supplies during emergencies should be breastfeeding mothers, so milk supply is one thing that mothers should not worry about. It’s all about feeding the mothers who then feed their babies.

Women’s bodies adjust differently when breastfeeding and start to utilise nutrients in food more efficiently – even in times when breastfeeding is not part of an emergency situation.

No special foods are necessary to breastfeed.

Mothers also do not need to avoid certain foods to breastfeed – eat whatever is available.

Breastfeeding mothers do not need extra fluids – but drink safely when thirsty whenever possible

What helps breastfeeding go well?

• Breastfeeding as soon as possible after birth – when the baby is giving signs of feeding interest

• Skin to skin contact between a baby and a mother

• The baby being latched on the breast well

• Frequent baby-led breastfeeding

• Letting the baby breastfeed until finished and letting her/him come off the breast when ready

• Giving the baby nothing but breastfeeds until she/he is six months of age

• Support and encouragement for breastfeeding women

• Avoiding bottles, teats, pacifiers and any breast-milk substitutes

What can make breastfeeding go wrong? 

• Separation of the mother and her baby

• Delaying the first breastfeed

• Restricting the frequency and length of breastfeeds

• Taking the baby off the breast before the baby is finished

• Trying to make a baby feed to a timetable

• Giving other food and/or fluids before the baby is six months of age

• Giving bottles, teats and pacifiers

• Lack of support, good advice and encouragement for breastfeeding mothers