Protecting babies in emergencies

Protecting babies in emergencies

Guidance is needed on infant and young child feeding for families in the UK affected by disasters and emergencies.

Heather Trickey and Helen Gray.

Disaster and emergency situations – floods, fires, terrorist attacks and widespread power failures – can affect any country, including the UK. In any disaster or emergency, babies are vulnerable and continued access to adequate and safe nutrition is essential. Families need support to ensure that children continue to be cared for and fed in line with their needs.

 

There is no UK government plan

The World Health Assembly (Resolution 63/2010) has recommended that all countries implement existing global guidelines on infant feeding during emergencies, including specific operational guidance to help relief agencies protect infant nutrition and minimise risk of infection. Although there is national guidance on care of animals during emergencies, a recent World Breastfeeding Trends Initiative (WBTi) report found that there are no UK-wide or national strategies addressing infant and young child feeding during a disaster. Scotland is the only part of the UK that has a named lead on infant feeding in emergencies. Emergency planning and response is devolved to local authorities; because there is no guidance on the protection of families with infants there is no way to ensure that local strategies consider infant nutrition as part of emergency response.

 

Risks for formula fed babies

Babies who are fully or partially formula fed are at risk if their caregivers lose access to clean water, are unable to sterilise feeding equipment or suffer disruption or contamination of their formula milk supplies. A suitable environment for preparation and storage of feeds, sterilising equipment, boiling water and safe storage such as a refrigerator, are all needed to prevent bacterial contamination

Gribble IYCFE liquid photo 13006_2011_Article_127_Fig2_HTML
Emergency supplies required to care for and feed a formula fed baby for one week in a developed country, using read-to-feed milk. From Gribble & Berry 2011 “Emergency Preparedness for those who care for infants in developed country contexts.” International Breastfeeding Journal /2011 6:16

 

Risks for breastfed babies

Breastfeeding protects against infection and can be comforting to infants and mothers during difficult times. Mothers’ supply of breastmilk is resilient, however, chaos, displacement and emotional strain, coupled with commonly held misconceptions about how breastfeeding works, can undermine a mother’s confidence and result in less frequent feeding. Breastfeeding mothers need access to the option of feeding in a private space and reassurance that continuing to breastfeed is the best option for their baby.

Skilled support can help mothers resolve breastfeeding problems and maintain the protective effect of full or partial breastfeeding. If breastfeeding helpers are not pre-authorised as part of planned disaster response the immediate help that families need can be delayed.

 

Risks associated with donated formula milk

The world is a better place than we sometimes think. When a disaster strikes, ordinary people often respond with an outpouring of generosity. We give clothes, equipment and food spontaneously and in response to public calls.

Donations Balham Mosque
Donations of clothing, bedding, toys, food and water, London, June 2017. Photo Credit: @balhammosque

In the absence of guidance, agencies responsible for co-ordinating emergency response and volunteers working on the front line are often not aware that donations of formula milk can put babies at risk. Risks from donated formula milk include inadvertently distributing products that are unsuitable for babies under six months or for babies with special nutritional needs, as well as distributing milk that is contaminated or out-of-date. There is also a risk that donations will be inappropriately provided to parents of breastfed babies, which can undermine the protective effect of breastfeeding and cause parents to become dependent on a continued supply of formula milk.

International guidelines for emergency feeding caution against accepting donations of formula milk. It is recommended that emergency planners and first responders, with expert advice, take responsibility for purchase and distribution of appropriate formula milks in line with the needs of each family.

 

What’s been done so far?

International guidelines for protecting infants in disasters and emergencies are available.  There is a need to adapt these to a UK context, where, beyond the early weeks, many babies are fully or partially formula fed and which includes a rich mix of cultures and nationalities with different feeding practices.

UK-based emergencies have tended to be highly localised and short-term. However, UK guidance will need to ensure preparedness for longer-term support needs, for UK charities and for displaced families and unaccompanied children who have sought refuge from outside of the UK.

Several UK agencies have developed guidance with limited scope. The Food Safety Agency has issued guidance to support safe preparation of formula milk in response to flooding and contamination of local water supplies. A toolkit has also been developed to support food banks, including preventing and managing unsolicited formula milk donations.

 

How to help ensure babies’ nutritional needs are protected

In the absence of national guidance, relief co-ordinators and agencies and members of the public will be concerned to do the right thing in response to a disaster. There is an urgent need to improve planning and raise awareness about the best ways to support infant and child feeding. These key points from have been adapted from UK and international guidance:
1) Members of the public

  • DO donate money to key agencies. This is the best way to support parents who need to buy formula milk. Money will allow parents, caregivers or coordinating aid organisations to buy the most appropriate milk to meet the individual needs of each baby. Donated formula milk can inadvertently put babies at risk.
  • DO offer your time to help agencies co-ordinating relief. Support and encourage mothers who are breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is protective against infection, and provides the baby with the safest possible nutrition.

 

2) Relief workers and aid agencies

  • DO have a local plan to support infant and young child feeding in emergencies in place for local authorities, first responders and aid agencies. All families should be screened to ensure they receive appropriate support or supplies.
  • DO ensure that mothers who are fully or partially breastfeeding have the support they need to continue. Mothers can seek support from their midwife or health visitor. Local emergency planning should have identified appropriate infant feeding support from local health and voluntary services. There are telephone helplines which support caregivers with all aspects of infant feeding:
    • NCT helpline (0300 330 0700)
    • The National Breastfeeding Helpline (0300 100 0212).
  • DO encourage donations of money to recognised agencies so that parents, caregivers and agencies can buy any formula or supplies needed, rather than donations of formula products.
  • Appropriate support or supplies including cash cards specifically for the purchase of infant formula and complementary foods for young children could be considered.
  • DO ensure that formula milk is purchased and distributed only for babies who need formula milk, following basic screening of families (simple triage tools have been recently been developed for use in emergency situations in Greece and Canada).
  • DO NOT distribute formula milk in an untargeted way.
  • DO ensure that parents are aware of guidance on sterilisation of bottles and teats and how to prepare any powdered formula safely and have access to facilities to carry this out, to reduce the risk of contamination. Liquid ready-to-feed formula may be needed if suitable preparation facilities are not available.

 

What is needed now?

There is an urgent need for UK governments to ensure infant and child nutrition is protected as part of the planned new strategy for resilience in major disasters. Local authorities and relief agencies require national guidance to develop local strategies so that we can all be better prepared.

                                                                                         

 

Heather Trickey is a Research Associate based in DECIPHer, Cardiff University. Her research focuses on public health policy and parents, particularly Infant Feeding Policy.

Helen Gray is Joint Coordinator of the World Breastfeeding Trends (WBTi) UK Working Group.

The first World Breastfeeding Trends Initiative UK report is launched!

commonsThe launch at the House of Commons on 15 November of the first UK-wide World Breastfeeding Trends Initiative (WBTi) report on infant feeding policies and programmes gave some clues to which “stepping stones” along a family’s feeding journey are missing, where families are struggling to meet their own breastfeeding goals. While most mothers in the UK (around 80%) do set out to breastfeed, breastfeeding rates plummet within weeks until fewer than 1% of babies in the UK are exclusively breastfed at 6 months.

MPs from across the political spectrum attended the parliamentary launch, hosted by Alison Thewliss MP, along with guests from Unicef UK Baby Friendly Initiative (who provided a screening of their new short video on their Call to Action) health professional bodies, voluntary organisations, breastfeeding experts and academic researchers. Nearly 20 organisations were involved in developing the report’s recommendations for action.

These recommendations cover the family’s whole feeding journey, and range from the fundamental importance of full Unicef UK Baby Friendly accreditation of maternity settings, to health professional training and access to skilled breastfeeding support in the community, all the way to maternity protection and the provision of breastfeeding breaks in the workplace.

Dr Amy Brown gave a keynote address demonstrating how the structure of joined up policies and programmes forms essential underpinning to the cultural change that is badly needed in the UK.

Lack of political and national leadership, uneven health professional training, formula milk marketing, poor data collection and patchy community support for mothers were identified as gaps in UK policies and programmes. The degree of variability in the minimum standards of training in infant and young child feeding training among different health professions – even those working most closely with mothers and infants – was surprising.

Eyebrows were also raised at finding that, while there is guidance on the care of zoo and circus animals in case of emergency or disaster, there is no national guidance for the care of mothers and babies in an emergency situation. Formula-fed babies would be at particular risk if access to clean water and electricity were interrupted, and it is vital that national guidance be communicated to all local authorities and emergency responders.

Scotland and Northern Ireland were found to have strong strategies and national leadership in place, but England and Wales fell short.

nicola-blackwood
Alison Thewliss MP, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Infant Feeding, hands the new WBTi UK Report to Nicola Blackwood MP, the Minister for Public Health

The Unicef UK Baby Friendly Initiative, however, was singled out as a “world leader” in its commitment to children’s rights and for the excellence of its training programmes, both in hospital settings and in the NICU and community.

The report provides the first broad-based assessment of the UK’s implementation of ten key policies and programmes to support women and babies during their feeding journey. The policies are drawn from the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding, which the UK has endorsed since 2003.

Some of the recommendations from the WBTi Core Group were actions that MPs could lead on, including the full implementation in UK law the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes as well as its full enforcement, and the protection of breaks for breastfeeding or expressing milk for mothers returning to work. Recent studies from Save the Children and WHO have also shown that political will is pivotal in driving forward improvement in key strategies across the board to support infant feeding.

One of the key drivers for the WBTi project in the UK is women’s choices. Although the majority of mothers in the UK want to breastfeed, many of them are struggling. The majority of these mothers wanted to breastfeed for longer but did not get the support they needed to meet their goals. Mothers who stop breastfeeding early due to unresolved problems have double the risk of postnatal depression.

The impact of infant feeding on child and maternal health is well documented, but the impact on the national economy is less well understood. In addition to costing the NHS more than £40 million for five common diseases alone, the long-term impact of the UK’s low breastfeeding rates on cognitive ability, human capital and productivity across the whole population is estimated to cost the economy at least 0.53% of gross national income.

Breastfeeding rates in the UK are lowest in its most-deprived communities, exacerbating health inequalities. Breastfeeding could prove to be a powerful means of combating inequality.

The environmental footprint of formula feeding amounts to nearly 22 kilograms of CO2, and 4700 litres of water, for every kilogram of milk powder produced. [12]

This first WBTi UK report provides a road map for policy makers and commissioners to target gaps in order to provide families with the support they need all the way through their feeding journey.

Getting breastfeeding to work – more on Indicator 4 of the WBTi (Maternity Protection)

breastfeeding at workWhen the Industrial Revolution began, women started to go out to work in large numbers and breastfeeding began to decline, spurring the development of alternative ways of feeding babies. Yet, 200 years on, the question of how to combine breastfeeding and work still remains for women around the globe.

In the UK in 2015, MPs themselves are struggling to secure the right to breastfeed their babies in the chamber of the Houses of Parliament itself!

Once again, the Global Strategy on Infant and Young Child Feeding is clear that there are proven ways to make this work. It calls on governments to produce “imaginative legislation” to protect the breastfeeding rights of working women.

In particular, it recommends that legislation be compatible with the International Labor Organisation’s standards, which state that there should be an entitlement to:

  • health protection, job protection and non-discrimination for pregnant and breastfeeding workers
  • at least 14 weeks of paid maternity leave
  • one or more paid breastfeeding breaks or daily reduction of hours of work to breastfeed

as well as recommending that space be provided nearby for working mothers to breastfeed or express their milk.

There is also a recognition of the extra challenges faced by women who work in the “informal economy”, such as those in casual or freelance work, who don’t always have the same protections as other women.

Each year, the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action produces a snapshot of the state of maternity protection around the world, which makes for some interesting comparisons.

WABA 2015
WABA 2015

Indicator 4 of the World Breastfeeding Trends initiative (WBTi) looks in much more detail at the laws and practices in each country to score them on the maternity protection they offer. Fathers are recognised too, because of their important role in nurturing babies and supporting breastfeeding, so the length of paternity leave is also included in the score.

How do you think the UK compares to other countries in protecting breastfeeding mothers at work? What was your experience of returning to work while breastfeeding? What would have made it easier?