'It's vital': bushfire crisis highlights need to increase breastfeeding rates

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images 

A world expert in infant nutrition says the current Australian bushfire crisis highlights the importance of increasing the nation's breastfeeding rates. 

Professor Ted Greiner, who specialises in infant feeding in third world countries suffering disasters, says the impact of climate change means there is a greater risk of families with babies facing emergencies during which they are unable to access essential products - including baby formula. Additionally, lack of access to clean water or power for extended period can make it more difficult for parents to provide for formula fed babies.   

"In prolonged emergencies where people no longer have access to normal markets, lots of old and sick people will die of course, but all artificially fed babies are vulnerable," Professor Greiner says.

"They can't be kept alive without formula or breastmilk."

Professor Greiner's comments came after families forced to evacuate homes in bushfire zones in NSW and Victoria, many of them with babies or young children, found themselves stranded without electricity and other essentials for days on end.

The World Health Organisation recommends exclusive breastfeeding for babies to 6 months of age. Australian breastfeeding statistics indicate we are falling well short of the above recommendations. While 96 per cent of mothers initiate breastfeeding, less than half (39 per cent) of babies are still being exclusively breastfed to three months ,and less than one quarter (15 per cent) to five months.

Professor Greiner says his experience in disaster situations around the world when women weren't breastfeeding was "horrible" and "gut wrenching", as parents were unable to sterilise bottles or carry enough water to mix formula, if they were able to get formula. During cyclone Katrina parents were stranded on rooftops and enormous numbers of babies became malnourished, he said.

Ballarat mum Jodie Stone was stuck in Bateman's Bay with her four children over the New Year period without power or access to shops. She says being able to breastfeed her youngest child in that situation was an enormous relief.  

"It certainly comforted her, and she fed more often.  We also had limited drinking water so her drinking from me freed up water for everyone else," Ms Stone says.


"There was one service station and people were lined up for in excess of two hours. 

"My youngest is two and I was very thankful I breastfed.  If she was a much younger baby and I relied on formula, then it would have been awful circumstances."

Ms Stone said if the evacuation centre provided nothing and if they did manage to get formula in, it would have been in limited supply.

"I couldn't even get nappies for (my daughter)," she says.

Professor Greiner says there must be strong government support for women to breastfeed, referencing countries such as Sweden, which has a 99 per cent breastfeeding rate and Norway with 98 per cent.

"Sweden and Norway don't have breastmilk pumping or trained lactation consultants.  It works there because it is the norm," he says. 

"When everybody does it, little girls see people breastfeeding.  When you haven't seen anyone do it and you are faced with it yourself it seems strange and a frightening challenge."

However, he stressed it was inhumane to say a negative word to a bottle-feeding woman.

"We should not be putting stress and pressure on women, but we must create a situation where women feel positive about breastfeeding and if they have problems, they can easily get help." 

Associate Professor of Nursing and Midwifery at Western Sydney University Kaleen Gribble has called for an urgent change to government emergency plans to consider babies and said all mothers having babies after June should be advised to continue breastfeeding through the summer period.

She believes there needs to be a return to the campaigns that ran 100 years ago telling people to keep breastfeeding over summer when many babies died because of "summer diarrhoea". 

Professor Gribble said summer is Australia's emergency season when babies are vulnerable and families need to factor that into their infant feeding decisions. 

"If you are not breastfeeding you need to be prepared," she says.

"Those not breastfeeding need to be prepared and have an emergency kit.  Breastfeeding is an emergency preparedness activity that builds resilience in communities."

The Australian Breastfeeding Association advises anyone caring for formula fed infants should have an "emergency kit" ready in case they find themselves without power or clean water. 

The kit should include: 

* Unopened tin of infant formula
* Enough bottles and teats to have one for every feed (thoroughly washed, sterilised and completely dried before sealed in a ziplock bag)
* Water- enough small bottles of still drinking water for reconstitution and large containers/bottles for washing hands and the preparation area (400-500ml per feed)
* Detergent for washing hands and washing the preparation area
* Paper towels for drying hands and the preparation area

All of these supplies can be stored in a lidded plastic box. The inside of the lid can act as a clean preparation area. It is generally recommended that 3 days of feeding supplies be stored in an emergency kit.

Anybody needing more information on infant feeding during an emergency can access ABA information here