I have been a La Leche League Leader for over ten years and have lived in Turkey for the past twenty years. On the morning of February 6, 2023, I was horrified to hear the news of the earthquake that surprised the people of southeastern Turkey and northern Syria while they slept.
In an emergency situation pregnant women, nursing mothers and babies are the most vulnerable. Supporting, protecting and promoting breastfeeding among the affected populations is crucial: BREASTFEEDING SAVES LIVES!
In Turkey, LLL’s presence is limited to my monthly meetings in Istanbul, a website (1) (on average 25,000 visitors per week) and an Instagram account (2); it seemed obvious that LLL should act on the information front, with its local and international partners.
Informing to support mothers in the affected area
The very first messages from mothers affected by the earthquake were almost always the same: “I’m so shocked, devastated that I have no more milk”. Along with many other partners in the breastfeeding community, we have joined forces to make the following message viral: “It is the ejection of milk that is affected by stress, not its production: your milk is there. Keeping your baby skin-to-skin as much as possible will help you relax. Offer the breast very often.”
Not always easy when the intimacy [pp1] of breastfeeding is culturally important and people are gathered in cramped quarters[pp2] . Fortunately, breastfeeding is highly valued in Turkey and many mothers have been able to get support from their families to be able to continue breastfeeding under sometimes extremely difficult conditions.
Then messages like “I haven’t eaten for two days, my 12 month old baby hasn’t eaten either, he only has my milk” became numerous, especially during the first week, while the emergency services were getting organized… I received many calls from mothers in absolutely dramatic situations. We reassured them as much as we could: “Help will come, hold on, your baby is getting the most out of your milk which remains nourishing despite the lack of food.” I thank my relatives and my friends from LLL for their support that allowed me to remain calm and not to flinch in front of so much desolation.
Finally, I distinguish a third type of cry for help: “My baby has fever and/or diarrhea, we can’t clean the bottles properly.” We had to explain from a distance that relactation is possible and that commercial formula milk has significant risks and should remain the last feeding solution for infants… A real challenge! Cup feeding, drip-drop method (3), LLL’s infographics have been useful to many parents and health professionals. These methods have helped to minimize the risks associated with artificial feeding as much as possible.
Informing on-the-ground teams about the dangers of uncontrolled commercial formula milk donations
Thanks to international organizations such as the Global Nutrition Cluster and Emergency Nutrition Network Infant Feeding in Emergency Core Group and a dozen volunteer translators (thank you!!!), we were able to make available in Turkish (4) very quickly numerous documents to inform the teams on the ground of the importance of not sabotaging breastfeeding by offering commercial cans of infant formula to breastfeeding mothers.
In Turkey, despite common sense, due to lack of preparation and information on infant feeding in emergency situations, absolutely all organizations called for donations of artificial milk, which were distributed often without any assessment of needs. Breastfeeding saves lives, random [pp3] distribution of formula kills. Of course there is a need for artificial milk, of course it must be made available for the babies who depend on it, but it must be done by protecting breastfeeding whenever possible and by putting in place the hygienic conditions necessary for artificial feeding.
To go there or not?
Many people did not understand why I did not go to the field. I probably could have helped dozens of mothers in a few days by going to the field, but I am not sure. I believe that, in the field, one needs above all specialized and experienced people, like Dr. Magdalena Whoolery. Dr. Whoolery went to Turkey and Syria and did an extraordinary job there, thanks to the support of LLL. I will never know if the choice I made to stay behind my screen coordinating the translations, feeding the LLL Turkey website, publishing on social networks was the best choice. In any case, it can be said that what LLL Turkey and its volunteers have accomplished in two weeks, no one else has done. I regret that medical professional associations and Turkish institutions did not take part in this titanic work of translation. And I salute the work of the volunteers, often mothers of young children who have provided a tremendous amount of quality work.
Turkey is a country with a high seismic risk. Now more than ever, we must repeat that the key to any effective humanitarian response is preparation[pp4] . It is necessary that all associations and organizations that have to intervene in emergency situations receive training on child feeding in emergency situations. LLL is ready to support all efforts towards full national implementation of the comprehensive “Operational Guidelines for Emergency Relief Personnel and Program Managers” document.
For more information on breastfeeding in emergencies, visit La Leche League International’s multilingual page: https://llli.org/breastfeeding-info/infant-feeding-emergencies-multilingual/
If you would like to financially support the work of LLL facilitators in crises and natural disasters, please make a donation by indicating “emergency”.
- More informations: https://llli.org/drip-drop-feeding/
Simplified Chinese: https://llli.org/wp-content/uploads/Copy-of-Drip-Drop-Method-Poster-2.pdf