'Health and safety risk': calls for better evacuation plans for babies

Heather Dyer with baby Henry.
Heather Dyer with baby Henry. Photo: Supplied

Heather Dyer, her husband, four children and pets had twenty minutes to pack and leave their house when fires hit Buxton, in the NSW Wollondilly Shire, before Christmas. 

While her husband scrambled for mementos, Heather was focused on saving the two chest freezer loads of donor breastmilk she'd stored for her eight-week-old son Henry.

Ms Dyer has a medical condition which prevents her from breastfeeding and relies solely on donor milk and a supply line to feed her baby. She grabbed the milk and packed it into eskies for the trip to Campbeltown. 

The freezer full of donated breastmilk Heather Dyer transported when evacuating.
The freezer full of donated breastmilk Heather Dyer transported when evacuating. Photo: Supplied

"I wasn't willing to leave it behind.  The thought of all the effort that the mums donating put into it," she said.

Fortunately, the family took two cars with Heather keeping the milk in her car as her husband ended up caught in traffic and then stuck when the car overheated.

Heather had planned for emergency situations and protecting her milk supply long before the emergency, even speaking with the RFS earlier about what to do with her milk if power was lost.  However, she said the bush fire preparation pack given to them by the RFS made no mention of how to prepare to evacuate with babies.

"There was information on what to do with pets and livestock, but nothing for kids," she said.  "Even if they just included what to include for children under two reliant on milk."

Earlier this week Angela Rintoul, a public health academic, told ABC how worried she was about infections caused by having to clean her baby's bottles in a hand basin at the Red Cross Relief Centre in the Victorian town of Mallacoota, after being evacuated during a holiday.

"It was very challenging with hundreds of people [there] trying to clean my baby's milk bottle in the toilet hand basin," she said.

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"You start to get worried about infection and other kinds of outbreaks that could happen."

Associate Professor of Nursing and Midwifery at Western Sydney University, Kaleen Gribble, has called for an urgent change to government emergency plans.

"The limited information available poses a safety risk to babies and young children," Professor Gribble said.

"Not only are government plans inadequate, which means that parents might not receive necessary support, but the current plans do not provide emergency preparedness guidance and support to caregivers."

She said infants are particularly vulnerable at this time and without access to appropriate food and fluid can become seriously ill within hours, particularly in hot weather.

"The people who can't leave are often the ones formula feeding which is why there needs to be really targeted support.  There is a real possibility those families won't have the resources to safely feed the baby," Professor Gribble explained.

She said families found themselves caught out because they can't conceptualise what it's like to be in an emergency situation where there is no power and no water or they are stuck on beaches and roads in cars.

"We have emergencies every summer and we should be talking about emergency feeding for all babies born after June.  We should be advising women to avoid weaning through the summer if it is possible.  The women who are breastfeeding are in a much better position at the moment.

"For babies formula feeding they are in a much more tenuous situation.  They should have an emergency kit with everything in it to feed their baby in a situation where they can't do any washing."

Professor Gribble said breastfeeding mothers should not be concerned about stress impacting on their milk production, however she said it can slow the release of milk making baby cranky.

"If this happens, keep offering the breast, look at your baby, think about how much you love them; this will release hormones that make the milk flow and help you and baby feel more relaxed.  It does need to be a priority to feed baby frequently in those situations."

She said previous emergencies had resulted in a direct impact on baby's health, with women forced to wash bottles in dirty puddles of water outside evacuation centres or towns cut off with only two bottles of formula left in shops.  Many babies suffered high rates of diarrhoea and hospitalisation for dehydration.

Professor Gribble has put together a comprehensive list of what to have in an emergency kit covering all types of feeding for babies. You can find it here.