16 November 2011

Breastfeeding best to protect babies from illnesses during floods

© UNICEF Thailand/2011/Piyanun Kiatnaruyuth

Story by Nattha Keenapan

(The story was published in the Bangkok Post on November 15, 2011)

AYUTTHAYA, Thailand, – Sujira Imsamran gave birth just two days after being evacuated from her house in Ayutthaya Province, one of the areas hardest-hit by flooding.  Despite the stress of being displaced and worrying about her baby’s well-being, Sujira is trying her best to keep breastfeeding in order to keep him healthy throughout this difficult time.

“It’s a hard situation, and I don’t want my son to get sick,” said Sujira, 26, who was evacuated in the middle of the night as fast-flowing floodwaters inundated her home. “But he is doing just fine so far.” 

For more than two weeks, Sujira and her family have been living in the shell of an unfinished building in Ayutthaya town that is now serving as a temporary shelter for hundreds of people affected by flooding. Living alongside her are a few other families who have settled in here with their small babies and young children, all of whom have been breastfed by their mothers.

“Although it's not so comfortable here, I am continuing to breastfeed my son because I want him to be strong,” said Thitiporn Phachen, 32, while breastfeeding her five-month old. “It's also safe, easy and cheap.”

UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Thai Breastfeeding Centre are urging mothers affected by flooding to continue breastfeeding. The organizations note that numerous scientific studies have proven that breast milk helps to build up the immune system in babies and young children, which can help them ward off illnesses in times of emergency such as the current flood crisis.

“Breastfeeding is one of the best things that mothers can do to protect their babies from illnesses,” said Napat Phisanbut, UNICEF Thailand’s Communication for Development Officer. “Mothers displaced by these floods can lack access to enough safe water to drink, let alone enough water for hand washing or cleaning food utensils.   That is why we recommend mothers continue to breastfeed rather than turning to infant formula to feed their babies.”

Napat said mothers who use infant formula can inadvertently expose their babies to contaminated water and feeding bottles, which can result in severe diarrhoea that can be life threatening.

Unlike Sujira and Thitiporn, some mothers affected by the flooding are unsure if they can continue breastfeeding. Some mothers believe stress makes their milk dry up, while others believe they cannot breastfeed if they are not getting enough food themselves. Most mothers believe that once they stop breastfeeding their children, they cannot start again.  All of these beliefs are wrong.

Health experts say that although stress can temporarily interfere with the flow of breast milk, it is not likely to inhibit breast milk production, provided mothers and infants remain together and are supported to continue breastfeeding.  At the same time, breastfeeding actually helps reduce stress in mothers and also creates a loving bond between them and their babies. 

Sukjing Wongdechakul, Senior Nutritionist of the Ministry of Public Health’s Department of Health said several teams of health workers have been dispatched to different temporary shelters to provide counseling and practical support to mothers in order to help them continue breastfeeding.

“We try to reach as many mothers as possible,” said Sukjing. “We encourage those who are already breastfeeding their children to continue to do so and we are helping mothers who had stopped to restart”.

Many mothers, however, stop breastfeeding during emergencies after receiving donated infant formula.  In some countries, massive amounts of infant formula are donated to breastfeeding mothers during emergencies without appropriate controls, resulting in unnecessary illnesses and death among many babies.

In Thailand which has the lowest breastfeeding rate in Asia and one of the lowest in the world, only 5.4 per cent of babies are exclusively breastfed during the first six months of life.

Napat, who recently visited several flood-ravaged areas in Chainat, Lopburi and Singburi provinces to assess the situation of children and families affected by floods, said most mothers are maintaining the same infant feeding practice as before the floods. Unsurprisingly, infant formula is among the items most requested by mothers affected by the flooding.

“Not all mothers using infant formula in flooded areas are fully aware of the risks,” Napat said. “Health facilities can play a role in providing information to mothers and ensuring that infant formula is given only to mothers who really need it.”

Health officials are warning mothers who use infant formula to use boiled or bottled water when mixing it. In addition, mothers are being urged to use cups that can be easily cleaned to feed their babies, as baby bottles and teats can be easily contaminated and lead to diarrhoea.

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