Breastfeeding through humanitarian emergencies

Breastfeeding isn’t easy for any mother. Some are lucky to navigate it from the comfort of their home surrounded by a loving support network. Others, unfortunately, are not. Let’s take a moment to think about all those who find themselves breastfeeding during humanitarian emergencies and to remember the importance of promoting breastfeeding in these situations.

It can be easy to forget how crucial breastfeeding is in a humanitarian emergency. During humanitarian crises such as armed conflicts, epidemics, famine, natural disasters and other major emergencies, breastfeeding is nothing short of a lifesaving intervention. For refugee women who have left their country of origin perhaps due to persecution during conflict or gender-based violence, it is essential. There are 25.9 million refugees globally, of which half are women. At the end of 2018, the countries hosting the highest numbers of refugees were: Turkey (3.7 million), Pakistan (1.4 million), Uganda (1.2 million) and Sudan (1.1 million).

When they arrive in these and other host countries, refugee women may find themselves living in planned/managed camps, informal settlements or private accommodations. For refugee women, particularly those with no support networks or financial support, the very basics of life can be a challenge, including feeding their own children.

Formula can be hard to obtain as it can be scarce or too expensive. When they do obtain such substitutes, it can be hard to find clean water to mix it with. Clean water is also essential for cleaning their child’s bottle. Therefore, breastfeeding is often the only option they have. This however, comes with it’s own challenges.

It can be difficult in many informal settlements and camps for refugee women to find private and safe areas to breastfeed. Moreover, mothers can be experiencing physical and emotional stress and are separated from crucial support networks that can help their breastfeeding journey. 

It is for this reason that humanitarian organisations have sought to protect, promote, and support breastfeeding in emergencies. In 1990 the Innocenti Declaration set an international agenda with ambitious targets for action. It called on governments, manufacturers, non-governmental organisations, multilateral and bilateral organisations and financial institutions to adhere to their responsibilities to promote healthy infant and young child feeding practices including the promotion of breastfeeding.

With regard to refugees specifically, in 2018, the UN Refugee Agency and Save the Children published a Framework on Infant and Young Child Feeding in Refugee Situations. The Framework provides guidance to managers and technical staff across sectors on what needs to be considered to create an ‘infant and young child friendly’ environment and facilitate optimal feeding in refugee situations. It calls for more support for mothers as well as infants and tries to ensure that practices are implemented so that breastfeeding refugee mothers are well-nourished and they have safe spaces to breastfeed.

These interventions and responses are crucial to saving lives and preventing malnutrition.

Many groups such as Nurture Project International and Save the Children are working to raise breastfeeding rates among migrant and refugee populations. For more information, and to find out ways you can support check out the following sites:



This was a guest article written by Zainnab Makele, a qualified solicitor who currently works in the humanitarian sector. 


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