Key Facts about Breastfeeding and Emergencies
Emergencies often occur when least expected, and sometimes when we are least prepared. They can include a wide range of unsettling events, including personal or family crises, public health emergencies (such as a flu pandemic), acts of terror and violence, and natural disasters or weather-related events (such as floods and blizzards).
Research shows that infants and children are the most vulnerable during emergencies.
- Nearly 95% of infant and child deaths in emergencies result from diarrhea due to contaminated water and an unsanitary environment.
- Infant formula has been linked to an increase in infant disease and death: it can also be contaminated and requires clean water and fuel to sterilize formula, bottles, and nipples. Lack of electricity also can make it difficult to preserve formula.
- Breastfeeding saves lives! Human milk is always clean, requires no fuel, water, or electricity, and is available, even in the direst circumstances.
- Human milk contains antibodies that fight infection, including diarrhea and respiratory infections common among infants in emergency situations.
- Human milk provides infants with perfect nutrition, including the proper amount of vitamins and minerals required for normal growth.
- Breastfeeding releases hormones that lower stress and anxiety in both babies and mothers.
- Mothers who breastfeed are able to keep their babies warm to prevent hypothermia.
Mothers can breastfeed in an emergency!
- The safest food in an emergency is the mother’s own milk. Donor human milk is the next best option. Mothers who cannot directly feed their babies can also be supported to express their milk.
- Women who are stressed can continue to make milk. A quiet area that helps mothers relax can help their milk flow to the baby.
- Malnourished mothers can make plenty of milk.
- Even mothers who have already discontinued breastfeeding may be able to restart breastfeeding (known as
- If a baby (or mother) becomes ill, the best thing the mother can do is to continue breastfeeding to provide her baby with human antibodies that fight the illness.
- Support makes the difference!
USBC Resources on Breastfeeding and Emergencies
Position Statement: “Statement on Infant/Young Child Feeding in Emergencies”
NEW! Story Collector: “Tell Us About Your Experience with Breastfeeding and Emergencies…”
Racial Equity Webinar: “Infant and Young Child Feeding During Emergencies (IYCFE)“
2018 National Breastfeeding Coalition Convening Presentation: “Adapting the Models of Prevention to Address Lactation and Safe Infant Feeding in Emergencies in Puerto Rico”
- Presented by Lourdes Santaballa and Lourdes Amadeo Ocasio, Alimentación Segura Infantil (ASI)
- Download slides (must be logged in to the website).
Additional Resources on Breastfeeding and Emergencies
American Academy of Pediatrics Flyer: “Infant Nutrition in Disasters and Other Emergencies: Breastfeeding and Other Options”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
Interagency Working Group on Infant and Young Child Feeding in Emergencies: “Infant and Young Child Feeding in Emergencies Operational Guidance for Emergency Relief Staff and Programme Managers”
International Lactation Consultant Association:
- “Emergency Preparedness Checklist for Breastfeeding“
- “Facts about Breastfeeding in an Emergency – Especially for Health Workers“
La Leche League International Website: “Links To Resources For Infant Feeding In Emergencies (Multilingual)”
National Association of Professional and Peer Lactation Supporters of Color: “Statement on Infant Feeding During Disasters”
Office of Human Services Emergency Preparedness and Response: “Infant Feeding During Disasters”
Save the Children: “IYCF-E Toolkit”
Wellstart International: “Infant and Young Child Feeding in Emergency Situations”
World Breastfeeding Week 2009 Website: “Breastfeeding: A Vital Emergency Response. Are you ready?”
World Health Organization Website: “Child and adolescent health and development, documents on emergencies”
WHO / UNICEF / WFP Joint Statement: “Call for support for appropriate infant and young child feeding in Haiti”
Resources on Talking with Children / Helping Children Cope
The National Association of School Psychologists has published resources for helping children or youth cope with tramautic and unsettling events.
Save the Children offers resources to assist parents, teachers, grandparents, and other caregivers on how to help children cope with a crisis.
Shelter During and After an Emergency
Ready.gov offers information and resources on taking shelter in an emergency. The safest locations to seek shelter vary by hazard. Be informed about the sheltering suggestions for each hazard. There may be situations, depending on your circumstances and the nature of the disaster, when it’s best to shelter in place. Search for open mass care shelters by texting SHELTER and a zip code to 43362 (4FEMA). Ex: Shelter 01234 (standard rates apply).
The American Red Cross responds to approximately 70,000 disasters in the United States every year, providing shelter, food, health, and mental health services to help families and communities get back on their feet. Use their tools to search for the closest open shelter during an emergency, and to register or search the Safe and Well listings.
Ready.gov provides advice on steps to take to recover from a disaster and begin getting your home, your community, and your life back to normal, including: health and safety guidelines, returning home, seeking disaster assistance, coping with disaster, and helping others.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Disaster Distress Helpline provides 24/7, year-round crisis counseling and support. Call 1-800-985-5990 or text “TalkWithUs” to 66746.
Resource: United States Breastfeeding Committee