Guest blogger Kate Tuttle: The generosity of average people after a natural disaster -- even one occurring thousands of miles away -- is truly inspiring. In the wake of the devastating earthquake in Haiti last January, we've witnessed acts of enormous caring, from doctors and nurses volunteering their time to construction workers traveling to help rebuild Port au Prince to everyday moms and dads sending donations of food, clothing and money. And the recent news that cholera -- a potentially deadly waterborne illness -- has now come to Haiti has sparked another round of giving. But charity isn't always so simple, and one of the most commonly requested donations -- baby bottles and formula -- can hurt far more than it helps, according to international aid workers.
The reason is simple: Breastfeeding, which is the best option for babies under any circumstances, becomes even more crucial when mothers and infants are in post-disaster situations, where clean water is nearly impossible to come by. Without clean water, bottles and nipples become vectors for disease, as does powdered formula prepared with dirty water. Once a baby begins feeding with formula, breastfeeding's delicate supply-and-demand loop is interrupted, and it's all too common for a nursing mother to find her supply waning. (Supply does not seem to be an issue in cases where mothers themselves are underfed and even dehydrated. Mother Nature seems to know how to provide for babies.)
While formula is often donated at first, once breastfeeding is interrupted, mothers scramble to get formula they may not be able to afford, which leads to women "stretching" it by mixing it with more than the prescribed amount of water, which can cause illness and even death. For all these reasons, aid workers caution against sending baby bottles and/or formula. In the very rare cases that a baby is left motherless, they say, the use of formula to feed that baby can and should be handled by care workers on the local level (UNICEF, for instance, which has been in Haiti since before the disaster).
Every time this issue comes up, it seems to provoke another round of online comment wars, in which America's love-hate relationship with breastfeeding is invoked, someone accuses the aid workers of being "boob Nazis" and so on. I wish we could get past that fight, because what happens in a country like Haiti is not about the issues so many American women bring to the topic of breastfeeding. It's unarguable that breast milk is babies' preferred food source, but American infants do just fine on formula. That's because we have dishwashers, refrigerators and clean water supplies -- three things that the average Haitian mother can only dream of at this point. (Oh, and enough money to buy the stuff.)
For mothers and babies whose lives are not like ours, there is no better health insurance plan than this: Provide them with shelter and food, and protect nursing mothers from helpful donations that will end up hurting them (and from the formula manufacturers, for whom every natural disaster represents a new market they'd love to get into).