Sunday, August 2, 2009

Prepared for Life: Breastfeeding in local and global crises

Welcome to the August Carnival of Breastfeeding: Prepared for life. This post is also a continuation of Hobo Mama's celebration of World Breastfeeding Week: August 1-7, 2009.

This month we're discussing the benefits of breastfeeding in crisis situations. Be sure to check out the links at the end for other participants' excellent posts!


The theme of this month's carnival is the same as that of La Leche League International's World Breastfeeding Week Celebrations: Prepared for Life.

The La Leche League USA website explains what the theme means:

"This theme recognizes the importance of supporting mothers with solid breastfeeding information so they can be successful at any time, especially in any emergency situation such as flooding, earthquakes or wild fires, or personal emergencies such as house fires, loss of a job, or public health emergencies like an epidemic."

The site further makes these points about the benefits of breastfeeding during any crisis or emergency situation: Breastfeeding can bring comfort to nurslings even in a crisis, as well as obviously providing nutrition, even if the emergency has interfered with the family's food supply and access to clean water or refrigeration. In addition, a breastfed baby will overall be a healthier baby and better prepared to deal with health challenges that might arise in an emergency.

When I read about this theme, I was immediately reminded of a very sad story of a family in the Pacific Northwest a few winters ago. James and Kati Kim and their two young daughters were driving home from Seattle to San Francisco when they unfortunately took a treacherous logging road and became stranded in the snowy wilderness. They stayed there a week, rationing out their gas, burning tires as a smoke signal, and hoping for rescue, when finally James set out walking to try to reach help. Kati and her daughters were spotted by a helicopter and rescued two days later, but James' body was found another couple days later, where he had dropped from disorientation and hypothermia.

Oh, sad. Just writing about it makes me so sorry again for this family.

But what it has to do with breastfeeding is that the family had also been rationing their small supply of food and melting snow for water, and the only way Kati was able to keep her two children properly nourished was by breastfeeding them.

Her younger daughter at the time was 7 months old, and her older daughter was 4 years old. Kati had been breastfeeding her infant, but now she breastfed them both and kept them alive and healthy even as all their other food ran out.

Throughout the long, snowy, cold days of waiting and worrying (a lot of playing hangman and singing songs, Kati said), I'm sure that the breastfeeding helped in calming the girls as well, particularly once the father had left on his doomed rescue mission.

It's not common that you'll be in an emergency situation where breastfeeding will mean saving the lives of your children, but "that's why they call them emergencies," as my mom would say. You never know when you might need such a failsafe.

When I thought about the theme of "Prepared for Life" and the Kims' story in broader terms, though, I thought of what it might mean to live in crisis situations daily. I thought about women who live in areas of the world where there's unrest, civil war, internal displacement, famine, and natural disasters. I thought about how breastfeeding could help women in chronic crisis care adequately for their youngest even in the face of such travail.

And I thought, too, of how we in the West, as a culture, denigrate breastfeeding to be a personal choice and suggest through our lifestyles and our beliefs in individualism and early independence that breastfeeding is all right, to a point, but that getting babies weaned as soon as possible is even better.

Like it or not, the West has a cultural influence on other parts of the world. I'm hoping that maybe we can make breastfeeding natural and matter-of-fact again — or dare I even say cool? — so that over time, maybe mothers in other nations who look to us will follow a good example rather than a questionable one.

Please don't think that I'm trying to suggest that every woman in, say, Liberia is looking at you or me personally and mirroring our every move. I'm thinking more of broad, global cultural trends.

Because most of us in the West can afford to be cavalier about the way we feed our infants. Whether we breastfeed or use formula, we have access overall to clean water, abundant food, and good health care. In other countries (and certainly among groups in our own), such privileges are routinely denied, and infants are often fed mixtures of unclean water and cereals without even benefit of formula, and they die as a result. (For instance, here's a PDF graph from UNICEF showing that only about 38 percent of young infants in developing nations are exclusively breastfed.) I have a friend, a nun, who volunteers in an orphanage in Vladivostok, where they were running out of food rations halfway through every month. For two weeks the babies, many of them abandoned because they were HIV positive, would receive formula, and then for the remaining two weeks until the next shipment, the babies would receive a watery mixture of gruel and tea in a bottle. Babies don't thrive on watery gruel and tea, in case there was any doubt.

For many of us in the West, there are at most distinct times in our lives where we're in an emergency situation that forces us to recognize the importance and great privilege of breastmilk, like during Hurricane Katrina or during a crisis like the Kims'. But there are young children who live (and, sadly, die) every day because they don't have access to what should be a basic human right: their mother's milk.

If breastfeeding became the norm again here, maybe the trend could spread. Maybe breastmilk banks and pumping volunteers (and even wet or cross nursing?) would become common and easily accessible for those who wouldn't otherwise have access to breastfeeding, like the Russian orphans. Maybe there would be renewed breastfeeding education efforts around the world, so that women in cultures where breastfeeding has been denigrated but whose babies are dying of diarrhea because of poor feeding would respond to the change in culture and begin breastfeeding again.

Let's make our culture a breastfeeding culture, so that we and babies everywhere can be prepared for life. That's what the World Breastfeeding Week theme means to me.


Please read the excellent posts from our other carnival participants:

Zen_Mommy: "Welcome, Carnival of Breastfeeding readers!" on how breastfeeding has shaped her toddler's view of breasts
Pure Mothers: "Marketing Away 'Real Milk'" about human vs. cow's milk as the "regular" milk
Chronicles of a Nursing Mom: "Tips for Consistent and Long-Term Breastfeeding Success" on preparing for a solid start to breastfeeding
Cave Mother: "Three Moments That Made Me Thankful I Breastfeed" on how breastfeeding allows for comfort and nourishment during unplanned events, both good and bad
Motherwear's Breastfeeding Blog: "The World Breastfeeding Week Carnival of Breastfeeding — Prepared for Life" debunking common myths about breastfeeding in a crisis
Blacktating: "August Carnival of Breastfeeding: Prepared for Life" on the difficulties of formula feeding during natural disasters
Breastfeeding 1-2-3: "Breastfeeding as a Lifesaver in Emergencies" discusses the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and the role breastfeeding could have played in the crisis
Fusion Parenting: "Breastfeeding — Prepared for LIFE!" on how breastfeeding contributes to joyful, spontaneous living

1936 Dorothea Lange photo of migrant mother
Florence Owens Thompson nursing Norma
courtesy trialsanderrors on flickr (cc)
and 1987 photo of a Sudanese mother and child
courtesy daveblume on flickr (cc)


Jenny said...

Actually, for the Western cultural influences, I have to say that it's not really a cultural influence per se but more of Western companies shoving products our way. For instance, did you know that Filipinos are generally lactose intolerant? But with the American occupation, milk was introduced as a primary and the best source of calcium and since then, Filipinos have been incorporating milk in their diets (despite the intolerance). Not only that, despite knowing that a lot of Filipinos do not have access to clean water, Western formula milk companies (Nestle, Abbot, MeadJohnson, etc.) have been promoting the use of formula milk instead of breast milk, as shown in UNICEF's documentary, "Formula for Disaster". There had been moves to strictly regulate the formula milk industry but with the backing of these giant milk companies, the regulatory measures were weakened. Let's face it - formula milk companies have a lot of money for advertising, etc. and promotion/education takes a lot of funds which breastfeeding support groups lack and milk companies take advantage of.

Zen_Mommy said...

As usual, very well done. And the beautiful photos--how touching! :-)

Lauren Wayne said...

Jenny: Thanks for bringing marketing into the conversation, and very interesting (sad) about Filipinos and lactose intolerance. I was afraid that my cultural influences thing was woefully underexplained and comes across as patronizingly simplistic. Not that I'm saying that's what you're saying — I'm accusing myself. I had in mind this whole long reminiscence about how I stopped eating meat for a number of years when I realized that Western meat-eating habits were really bad for the world but containable (sorta) if only the West were doing it — but as soon as it started spreading, and it was, things were getting out of hand. There wasn't a direct connection between my becoming vegetarian and "saving the world," but it was all I could think to do, you know? And of course, implicit in all that damage from meat eating is, e.g., McDonald's, which is everywhere globally now, with its big money and its message of eat cheap meat and don't ask where it came from or how we're going to sustain this. But, as you can tell from this comment, my thoughts got too rambly to bother putting them into the article. Just know that I acknowledge that nothing about this issue is simplistic, with some easy fix. I just truly am hoping there could be a glacial change toward the good in terms of breastfeeding being promoted again worldwide. I will have to see "Formula for Disaster," though I can tell now it's going to make me angry. ;) I've been really annoyed with Nestle and other formula marketers anyway, but when I was doing research for this article, I was surprised to find that there are so many women not even bothering with formula (because it is too expensive for so many) but also not using breastfeeding, instead using traditional supplemental feeding like gruels and other watered-down solids (with unclean water). And then of course there are all the orphans or abandoned children who don't have a mother to breastfeed them in any case. In some ways, formula in such situations would be a big step up! But I'd MUCH rather have breastfeeding promoted instead of Nestle moving in and telling the mothers who are available to go to formula. So, again, it's complicated. And there are so many places where people die from want of food, not because there's not food available, but because their governments selfishly limit their access to it, leaving donated shipments to rot. In those areas, too, breastfeeding would be invaluable at least for the very young. So many babies dying every day, and in some ways the solution is so simple. But not. I just hope things might change for the better this time. Ok, I'll stop now. Thanks for letting me write a bunch more!

Zen_Mommy: I love those photos! So different in tone, and yet both so beautiful. Yea for the internet. I thought it was really intriguing to read Florence Owens Thompson's annoyance about having her picture splashed everywhere as the Face of the Great Depression in that Wikipedia article I linked to in the photo credits. Didn't stop me, though, did it? :)

Cave Mother said...

Fab post. I often think how superior we act in the west, shaking our heads at how formula companies managed to convince third world mothers to use artificial milk. But we should look at little more closely at ourselves: we, supposedly savvy westerners, have been tricked by them as well. Only we pretend it is a "choice", not that we have been duped by marketing.

If only more people knew the serious damage that formula feeding has done in countries with poorer healthcare and sanitation than in industrialized countries.

Elita said...

I love this post! Most African-Americans are lactose intolerant as well. Hell, most Americans are lactose intolerant! If that weren't the case, there wouldn't be such a huge market for soy products, lactose-free milk and ice cream by Lactaid and those pills you can take before you eat foods with lactose. We are the only species that drinks milk beyond the age of weaning and we are the only species that drinks the milk of another animal.
Anyway, this was a great read, so glad you are participating in the Carnivals again.

Jenny said...

on elita's post that we are the only species that drinks milk beyond the age of weaning, can i just add that here, we have formula for almost everyone! formula for 1-3 kids (toddlers); pre-school (up to 6); for pregnant moms - anmum; for lactating moms - anmum lacta; for the elderly, for women, etc. etc. :-O

Anonymous said...


I've never commented here before, but your post really hit a chord with me.

We have a BIG job ahead of us to turn the North American culture around. More than 50 years of damage has brought us here - starting in the 50's when the medicalization of birth moved birthing into hospitals and the formula companies started marketing hard to dr's and nurses, and then of course, the public.

Oh, how I long for the day when breastfeeding, wet nursing and cross nursing are once again mainstreamed and normalized. And for the day when the formula companies get kicked out of the government bed. Oh and also, when the WHO Code is an actual LAW!

If you haven't heard of them already, you may want to check out the Best for Babes Foundation. They are working hard on this exact issue and I support them with a $2/sale donation.

All the best,
Wendy Armbruster Bell

Melodie said...

I really enjoyed this. And thanks for posting the story about the couple and their kids lost in the snow. It really brings everything home how an emergency doesn't have to be an earthquake, hurricane, war or famine. Anyone can fall into an emergency situation.

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