UNICEF has weighed in on the breastmilk vs. formula debate going on in the blogosphere about how best to help Haitian babies.
The answer: do not send breastmilk or formula. Send money.
UNICEF is handling the food aid efforts in the quake-ravaged nation, so their opinion is the one that counts.They are not taking donations of human milk at this time, and are strongly discouraging outside donations of infant formula.
Their message is clear: breast is best. “Artificial feeding in an emergency carries high risks of malnutrition, illness and death and is a last resort only when other safer options have first been fully explored,” they say.
Citing the immunological benefits of breastmilk in protecting infants from disease, they say it is of vital importance to keep babies caught up in the disaster nursing.
They identify three groups of infants in Haiti who may need help:
- Infants who were already being breastfed before the quake, and are still with their mothers
- Infants who were being ‘mixed-fed’ some breastmilk and some formula before the quake
- Infants who were entirely bottle-fed or who do not have access to a lactating woman in the aftermath of the quake (this group presumably includes the many new orphans the quake has left behind)
UNICEF’s goal is to keep the breastfed babies nursing full-time by giving their mothers priority access to water, food and shelter. They say the idea that women can’t produce milk under stressful conditions is a popular myth, and that most women are able to continue feeding their babies just fine.
For babies who had been “mixed-fed”, UNICEF is working to help mothers reestablish lactation or revert to exclusive breastfeeding. They stress that with the lack of access to clean water and the prevalence of infection, breastmilk is the best choice for infant feeding. They are training aid workers to help women establish and continue breastfeeding.
Finally, they are urgently working to identify infants less than six months of age who are not breastfed at all. Their priority for feeding these infants is to reestablish a nursing relationship with the mother. Where that’s not possible, they are training those caring for these infants to feed them with a cup and spoon. Sanitary conditions make the use of bottles problematic. They are using only ready-to-use formula due to the lack of clean water.
Their statement stressed the importance of allowing UNICEF’s trained personnel to distribute any infant formula, to ensure that it reaches only those infants who cannot be breastfed, and that all formula fed infants have medical monitoring due to their increased risk of infection.
While UNICEF is not accepting human milk donations, other places are. If you want to donate milk, you can donate through the Human Milk Banking Association of North America. They’re working with UNICEF in the event that importing donated milk becomes a good idea. In the meantime, there are plenty of other babies who can use that milk, and milk supplies in US milk banks are already low.