Maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health

Infant feeding in emergencies - guidance for relief workers in Myanmar and China

13 May 2008

Infant breastfeeding

During emergency situations, whether manmade or natural disasters such as the recent cyclone in Myanmar or the earthquake in China, disease and death rates among children under-five are generally higher than for any other age group. The younger the infant, the higher the risk. Mortality may be particularly high due to the combined impact of a greatly increased prevalence of communicable diseases and diarrhoea and soaring rates of undernutrition.

The best way of preventing malnutrition and mortality among infants and young children in emergencies or otherwise, is to ensure that they start breastfeeding within one hour of birth and continue breastfeeding exclusively (with no food or liquid other than breastmilk, not even water) until six months of age. Even in emergency situations, the aim should be to create and sustain an environment that encourages frequent breastfeeding for children up to two years of age.

Unfortunately, however, there is a widespread misconception that mothers cannot breastfeed adequately due to stress or inadequate nutrition. Frequently, news from devastated areas report stories of mothers who have given birth and are "not producing enough breastmilk". Rather than providing infant formula and feeding bottles indiscriminately, the focus should rather be on establishing safe 'corners' for mothers and infants, one-to-one counselling and mother-to-mother support.

The Infant Feeding in Emergencies Core Group (made up of UNICEF, WHO, UNHCR, WFP, IBFAN-GIFA, CARE USA, Fondation Terre des Hommes, and the Emergency Nutrition Network) has developed Operational Guidance for Emergency Relief Staff and Programme Managers, which provides concise, practical, non-technical guidance on how to ensure appropriate infant and young child feeding in emergencies.

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