World Breastfeeding Week, August 1-7

World Breastfeeding Week, August 1-7

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Need for nutrition doesn’t stop for emergencies

By Matt Hackworth, CWS, Inc.

SWABI, Northwest Frontier Province, Pakistan – The scorching sounds of intense fighting near her home in the Swat Valley drove Saeeda away so quickly she didn’t have time to save many belongings.

“I am not going to be bothered to hide myself and my daughter and feed her,” the young, nursing mother said, enjoying a respite of fresh air near the door of a home where more than 30 people have sought shelter.

“I guess we all have to adjust in one way or another, and we do know that feeding baby is something that needs to done in a relatively less crazy environment and peace,” says Saeeda.

In northwest Pakistan peace is scarce at the moment. In the chaos of fighting that displaced more than 3 million in Pakistan since army and Taliban forces began clashing in late May, and in countless other emergencies around the globe, nursing mothers like Saeeda tend to their babies no matter what challenges they face. In tent-ridden displacement camps, small shelters or during escape, nursing mothers continue to give life-saving nourishment to their children.

“Giving babies the golden start in life must start with providing support to the mother or caretaker, especially during an emergency,” says Julia Suryantan, a physician and nutrition expert in Church World Service’s Indonesia program.

Developing countries such as Indonesia are more prone to emergencies, and yet are more likely to depend on infant formula instead of breastfeeding. A joint project between the humanitarian agencies CARE, Helen Keller Institute and CWS found fewer than half of mothers in the rural West Timor region breastfeed their children exclusively for the first 6 months. Nationwide, only around 14 percent of Indonesians breastfeed during what Dr. Suryantan labels the “golden start.”

In response, CWS actively promotes breastfeeding in its nutrition and emergency feeding programs. The dynamic of working in an emergency, however, makes promoting breastfeeding even more challenging.

“Water and utensils used to make formula milk may be contaminated during emergencies,” says physician Sithu Wai, who leads CWS’ response to Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar. “Breast milk can give more immunity to babies in unfavorable environments found often after disasters.”

“Even during an emergency, breast milk is still the best,” Dr. Suryantan says. “It’s the safest, healthiest, the most affordable and always available.”

CWS does not provide baby formula in its emergency food packages, even during emergencies.

The seemingly simple act of providing food – a cornerstone of providing humanitarian assistance — can be often complicated. Logistical problems, government restrictions, cultural idiosyncrasies and other challenges such as security concerns make providing aid complicated.  In Pakistan, for example, most of those displaced by violence have found shelter with friends, family members or even willing strangers in private homes. Security limits aid workers’ ability to operate and, as a result, it can be difficult to find pockets of people – like Saeeda – who need help.

The Pakistan crisis is further complicated by cultural norms that prohibit unaccompanied women, many whose husbands stayed behind to guard property from destruction, from actively seeking assistance. With the help of local agencies, CWS focuses on providing unaccompanied women with food and medical care.

“We know women and children are particularly vulnerable in most emergencies,” says CWS Emergency Response Program Director Donna Derr. “It’s critical we make sure new mothers are provided with adequate nutrition, so they are encouraged to nurse their infants and the child is healthier.”

Extensive research indicates promoting good nutrition before age 3 provides the best basis for development. Children who are exclusively breast fed for the first 6 months, and supplementally until age 3 grow better in mind and body than those who are not.

“The first three years is the golden time,” says Dr. Suryantan. “If we miss it, we lose the optimal growth of the child.  Early initiation, exclusively breastfeeding until 6 months, continued breastfeeding up to 2 years of age as well as, timely and proper complementary feeding and access to health care is a must.”

In Pakistan, CWS provides mobile health clinics with female staff to screen patients and ensure mothers like Saeeda are healthy and are able to breastfeed.

“Even in the toughest of circumstances, mothers like Saeeda should know breastfeeding is best, which is why CWS promotes it,” Dr. Suryantan says.

CWS’ Saadia Haq contributed reporting to this story.