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Why we’re helping mothers to breastfeed in refugee camps

A mother in a Greek refugee camp.
A mother with her children in Idomeni camp on the northern Greek border. Families are staying here for weeks hoping to cross the border.

By Anna Pantelia, Save the Children Communications Officer

Over the past month, Idomeni, a small Greek village on the border with the Former Yugoslavia Republic of Macedonia, has come under the international news spotlight. 10,000 refugees and migrants there have been left in limbo following the closure of the border.

Rain has turned the place into a huge muddy and dirty quagmire that makes living conditions for refugees and migrants unbearable. Many children have been admitted to the local hospital, suffering from diarrhoea and gastroenteritis because of a lack of drinkable water, low hygiene levels, and bad weather conditions.

This wasn’t the first time I had seen Idomeni camp – but I was shocked by the number of people stranded at the border who have been living in these terrible conditions for weeks now.

I saw people fighting for a piece of wood that could help them start a fire to cook or stay warm. Others were queuing for hours to get a sandwich and a juice box, and young children were playing in the mud and stagnant water.

I spent some time speaking with a mother from Iraq. She was travelling with her husband and four children. She told me that it’s too expensive to buy enough food for everyone and she can’t stand in the queue with her children for three to four hours for food. So they just buy a bag of rice from the local market, start a fire and cook it. I asked her what the baby was eating; she went back to her tent and brought out the milk powder she had bought.

“Look, we had to pay 14 Euros for baby milk, it’s so expensive,” she told me. I asked how she cleans and sterilises the bottle. She explained that she boils water in a pot and uses this to sterilise.

A fire in a refugee camp.
A pot used to boil water and sterilise a baby bottle.

A bit later, while I was walking around the camp with my camera, a man gestured to me to come closer. I assumed he wanted to tell me his opinion about the situation. But when I came closer he pointed with his finger to a cardboard box next to him. I walked towards the box and saw a baby sitting inside along with her teddy bears, two bottles of milk and some oranges.

A baby in a refugee camp in Greece.
A baby from Iraq sitting in a cardboard box with her toys and a bottle of milk.

When I came back to the office I shared the photo with Barbara Bale, Save the Children’s Nutrition Adviser. She told me about the times when mothers used drawers as cradles. She also explained that when people are forced to live in these conditions the cardboard box helps to keep the baby away from the mud and dirt. But it was the milk bottles that had caught Barbara’s attention.

She explained that in emergencies, environments are often extremely infectious. This means the risks of feeding babies with infant formula in a bottle are high. The lack of access to clean water, fuel, a clean space for preparation, a room for storage and a stable supply of formula can cause serious health issues for babies. Unlike breastfeeding, bottle feeding hugely increases the chance of infection; and unlike breast milk, infant formula does not protect the baby from disease. And of course, breast milk has the added bonus of being free.

She also talked to me about the myths surrounding breastfeeding during a crisis. Take, for example, the belief that stress dries up breast milk. In reality, for some mothers, acute stress can temporarily reduce the flow of breast milk, but lactation does not stop. Holding the baby skin to skin and allowing the baby to suckle is all that’s needed to make the milk flow again. Breastfeeding actually calms the mother and baby due to the skin to skin contact and the hormones it releases.

Our primary aim is to protect, promote and support breastfeeding as the safest and best option to minimise health risks and ensure child survival, growth and development in emergency situations. But for mothers travelling all the way from Asia and the Middle East to Europe with children, it can be challenging to continue breastfeeding.

We support mothers through our Mother-Baby Areas. Here they have a quiet, private and relaxing space to breastfeed babies. They also receive advice, encouragement and counselling about feeding practices and we identify babies unable to breastfeed. We make sure that caregivers have access to the correct formula, and that it’s prepared in a clean environment with sterile water.

We also help to make sure that mothers and caregivers have access to appropriate complementary foods for babies who are more than six months old. We support with feeding, child care practices, child development and protection, and we also provide counselling and support for pregnant women and women who have recently given birth.

We run Mother-Baby Areas in Idomeni and Lesvos, and we have a breastfeeding corner in Leros. We’re also working to open Mother-Baby Areas in the camps in Athens and in other formal camps in the northern border regions.

A mother in a refugee camp in Greece.
Maryam*, from Afghanistan, came to our Mother-Baby area in Lesvos to get advice about how best to feed her 8-month-old son, Ameer*. She fled violence in her home town and is travelling alone with her 5 children.

Why Save the Children does not accept milk donations

Our nutrition team supports mothers so that they can breastfeed exclusively for the first six months (nothing else is needed), and then continue to breastfeed until their child is two or beyond.

After six months, babies needs more than breastmilk alone, and we help mothers and caregivers to provide other appropriate food sources for the baby. Each mother-baby pair is fully assessed and we support, counsel and respect mothers who cannot breastfeed, providing either a ready-to-use infant formula or ensuring access to a suitable powdered milk formula that is safely prepared and adheres to international standards and guidelines.

This greatly reduces the risks of infection and of incorrect preparation. Donations of infant formula, bottles, teats and other powdered or liquid milk, and milk products, should not be made and Save the Children cannot accept them. Experience in past emergencies has shown that random, untargeted distribution of infant formula endangers babies’ lives.

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