When Milk Is Life: Breastfeeding on the Refugee Trail

Right now, somewhere, a refugee mother is walking with a baby on her back.

She is not alone; last year, a record 65 million people were displaced from their homes and 22 million of them spilled over the borders in search of safety. Syria alone has seen 14 million of its citizens displaced, with five million ending up in nearby Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon, while tens of thousand of others have set out on the dangerous, arduous migration to Europe—some crossing the through Turkey and Greece along the Balkan route or crowding onto anything that looks like it might float across the Mediterranean.

The overland route was closed in 2016, but people still make the journey, even knowing others that have gone before them languish in refugee camps scattered across Eastern Europe. For many migrants, Europe represents peace and stability, offering them a chance to resume the sort of life they led before the war. They see the potential rewards as greater than the potential risks.

Life on the refugee trail

Despite billions in aid and the best efforts of humanitarian groups, the daily life of a refugee is one of uncertainty. The very basics of life—eating, drinking, washing, using the toilet, sleeping—can be a challenge. This is particularly true for the mothers of infants. How do you keep a baby clean, dry, and fed in the crowded confines of a refugee camp?

Feeding is the most fundamental need, and it would seem nature provides the perfect solution: breastfeeding.

According to the World Health Organization, over 800,000 babies die each year because they were not breastfed—many of them refugees, at high risk of infection from food insecurity, unsafe water, and poor sanitation. Unlike formula, breast milk can’t be tainted by dirty water. It doesn’t require boiling. It gives the immune system a much-needed boost and helps maintain weight. So they recommend that babies are exclusively breastfed from birth to six months, then moved to a combination of breastfeeding on demand and supplemental feeding until age two. But they also recognize this is a tall order.  “All too often, breastfeeding is overlooked as a key lifesaving intervention, especially in emergencies.”

Support for young refugee mothers

“A lot of breastfeeding is psychological,” writes Brooke Bauer, president of Nurture Project International, in the Guardian last year. “You have to have confidence, you have to have support.”

Young refugee mothers are often cut off from their traditional social support networks. Some of them have given birth on the trail, stopping by some local hospital in Turkey and heading then back on the road the next day, before care providers can do much more than shove a few supplies and packets of formula in their direction. Stuck in camps in Greece or Hungary, many lack the privacy they need to nurse comfortably.

Well-meaning NGOs frequently distribute formula to anxious mothers. Brooke Bauer recalls arriving at a camp near Idomeni, Greece last year and seeing volunteers going tent-to-tent with packets of formula, some of it years out-of-date. Water and cooking facilities at the camp were limited. “Just as you don’t eat raw chicken, you can’t drink formula without boiling water.” She noticed mothers sharing a single bottle among their babies. Others were over-diluting the powder to make it last longer, reducing its nutritional value even more.

Her Nurture Project International brought in lactation consultants to work with mothers who were struggling. They helped those who wanted to wean off formula restore their milk supply and led them through the process of moving back to breastfeeding. For those babies that were now eight to nine months and couldn’t be trained to breastfeed, they secured a better supply of formula and encouraged proper use. They even outfitted tents with comfortable seating areas where mothers could to nurse in private, or even just take a few moments for themselves to relax.

How you can help

Nurture Project International is just one of the groups working to raise breastfeeding rates among migrant and refugee populations. Safely Fed and Save the Children have joined the movement, and La Leche Leagues in Europe are among those working to improve infant feeding in the camps.  All these groups are looking for prenatal and lactation experts that can donate their time and talents to women and babies in need.

The need is unlikely to diminish any time soon. Peace in Syria remains elusive. Other nations face ongoing instability, conflict, and climate-related crises. Refugee camps will continue to blossom and babies will continue to be born. This growing international infrastructure of refugee lactation experts, working in the camps to help young mothers, can give more and more babies their best start on the long, hard road back to peace and security.

Featured image by Melissa Jean

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  • When I had my son 22 years ago, (I was 23), he refused to nurse at all in the hospital. I had been committed to nurse and felt like a complete failure. I was scared because the nurses had given me a time limit – that if I couldn’t get my son to breastfeed, they would have to bottle feed him and I did not want that at all! So they sent in a Le Leche helper who stayed with me and my son until I finally got him to nurse. It took hours and many tries and failures, but the nurse was so supportive and didn’t let me give up, even when I was exhausted. And once he finally latched on, boy oh boy, did he figure it out! I think part of the reason for the trouble was my own nervousness, which of course my infant son could sense. Another reason was my self-consciousness, which went away pretty quickly once we got the hang of it. I thank God for the opportunity to work with that nurse and for her patience, and I breast-feed my son until he was over 8 months at which point I just wasn’t producing enough milk. He was a quickly growing boy who needed more than I could give him (and he had gotten his teeth, so when I couldn’t produce, I got bit hard!). I pumped like crazy trying to at least supplement the formula I was forced to turn to, and pumping was something I was used to because I also worked nights full time. Pumping also gave my husband that time to bond with our son when he fed him my breast milk in special bottles designed to be similar to breastfeeding. I do know that nursing my son was the best decision in my life. It made me feel a deeper connection with him and I like knowing that I could and did give him the best nutrients and pass on as many immunities as I could. It made me feel like a superstar – which is especially important because as much as nursing was good for him, it was even better for me. I suffered from post partum depression before there was a name for it, and no one ever talked about it. My family didn’t understand, I didn’t understand, and I was left to deal with it on my own. Luckily, I was able to make it through, but I’m glad that people talk about it now. Nursing helped my son and I bond in that first difficult year and I think it’s wonderful that we can have these open discussions now and have support systems in place. Even though we got off to a rough start, I wouldn’t have traded it for anything in the world!

    • Thanks so much for sharing, Susan! What a lovely story of intimacy and like you said, feeling like you were able to give him the best you could possibly offer (which I’m sure also felt like an important victory in the throes of postpartum). We’re also so happy women are sharing stories like this more openly now…thank you for sharing yours! xx


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