Breastfeeding is natural, but it doesn’t come naturally to most women.
Imagine that you’ve just given birth, in a hospital you didn’t plan on delivering in, and in a country foreign to you. You’re now living in a temporary shelter, you’ve left behind your home, your job, and your intimate community of friends has been scattered. Then imagine yourself trying with all of your might to breastfeed your new bundle of joy. You know it’s what’s best for her, but you’re struggling. You wonder if she’s eating enough, if you’re making enough milk, and if she’s gaining the right amount of weight. You try to recall images of the women from your community back home who breastfed, but what you truly long for is the patience, direction, and kindness of another woman. Even if only for a short time, you hope for someone to come along who can give you guidance in your new role as nourisher to your child. Just a moment of refuge from life’s current state of turmoil. But there’s no one. You’re on your own.
What hopelessness a vulnerable new mother would feel.
This is the case for many mothers in crisis situations. They are familiar with the natural process of feeding babies milk from their own breasts, but this sacred right has been interrupted by a whirlwind of chaos and well-meaning but ill-informed supporters handing out formula. There’s a huge need for the preservation and reinforcement of breastfeeding among women escaping war and natural disasters. And there’s a promising solution– trained lactation and health professionals on hand for new mothers to reach out to along their journey.
COHI, in partnership with other organizations and individuals is helping mothers in crisis make the most practical, healthy, and sustainable infant feeding choices. This is being done through one-on-one training, hands-on assistance, and providing safe comfortable areas to nurse.
Maybe you’re wondering, “why breastfeeding and not formula?” There are two key reasons I believe that focus on what is best for both mother and baby. We must remember that no matter how heartfelt any assistance may be, if it forgets who it is meant to serve and why, it may not be helpful at all. There are definitely cases when formula feeding is appropriate, but if a mother is promptly equipped with a trained lactation professional it’s unlikely formula will be needed.
Below are what I believe to be the most important reasons to help new mothers sustain a healthy milk supply and receive education about breastfeeding. They are lasting solutions for once the crisis is over and the families are resettled. It’s always our hope and their desire to be self-sustaining contributing members of their community. Implementing a practice of formula feeding for all has the potential of crippling an entire generation of mothers. It steals the normative process of breastfeeding from a huge group of women and makes them bound to dependance on costly formula.
Breastfeeding isn’t simply nutritionally superior for babies, but it has tremendous psychological benefits for the mother. It’s well known among breastfeeding mothers and lactation professionals that mothers experience an indescribable “calming effect” during nursing sessions.
Let’s restore hope both in the hearts and minds of new displaced mothers. We must remind them that they are capable, strong, and that they still have plenty to offer their newborn baby. By providing mothers with inviting professionals and spaces to nurse we encourage a mother’s body to relax and release oxytocin, the “love hormone”, which provides mothers with that calming and peaceful feeling. We have the unique opportunity to also reiterate to a new mother her capabilities. We empower her mentally to not only nourish her child through breastfeeding, but also reinforce the emotional importance that breastfeeding provides. Breastfeeding is a a psychologically gratifying experience that benefits both mother and baby, especially during a crisis situation.
By supporting breastfeeding, babies are fed antibody rich nourishment and mothers are rewarded with the calming effects. Though the women are currently in a vulnerable and helpless situation, we don’t want to perpetuate that feeling. There is hope for them. These women are smart, capable, and strong enough to nourish their baby from their own body.
Breastfeeding is an exceptionally more safe option than formula feeding, especially for children in crisis conditions. Formula feeding in transit poses a huge risk to the health of a young child. Clean water isn’t always available, unsterile bottles and nipples can harbor bacteria, and bottle feeding poses an increased risk of ear infections in infants.
With every feeding that a mother supplements with formula and does not remove the breastmilk from her breasts, it sends a signal to her body to produce less milk. This will eventually lead her body to not producing enough milk to sustain her child. Her baby will then become continually dependent on formula; something a mother in transit can’t afford and doesn’t have regular access to. A mother who’s been using formula isn’t able to simply go back to breastfeeding if she ever finds herself in a situation where formula isn’t available. What typically happens though when a mother who’s formula feeding becomes concerned that she’ll run out, is that she begins diluting the formula to make it last longer. This is obviously extremely dangerous and will eventually lead to malnutrition and starvation in the child.
The most promising answer for these new mothers is for there to be support with breastfeeding from the very beginning, preferably by a lactation professional.
As refugees in transit many women aren’t gaining access to a lactation professional who can help them overcome the common hurdles to and myths about breastfeeding, that so many of us women not in crisis have also experienced. The solution to this issue is quite simple. Providing lactation training to aid workers, health professionals, and new mothers with an emphasis on the importance of breastfeeding, how to maintain a healthy milk supply, and how to overcome common hurdles that almost all breastfeeding mothers have faced.
COHI is a key partner in leading this trend in Greece and other areas where mothers are fleeing their homes because of war and natural disasters.
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This article was written for Circle of Health International and originally published on their blog. Photo provided by Sera Bonds.