Breastfeeding: how one group fought the spread of formula milk in refugee camps
When my Nurture Project International colleagues and I first arrived at the Eko camp near Idomeni in Greece, it looked like Glastonbury – just a bunch of pup tents. The mothers had no privacy, there was no support for infant feeding, and independent volunteers were going tent to tent handing out bottles of formula. While they thought they were helping, it was dangerous. Women in a situation of poor security will take anything that is offered to them, so even breastfeeding women will take formula milk. Many women think formula is healthier than their own milk and will start feeding it to their babies.
Formula use in refugee camps is dangerous because when the supply is unstable women will dilute the milk – they add water to it and the babies don’t get enough nutrients. Often the powdered milk, which is not sterile, can’t be heated properly. Just as you don’t eat raw chicken, you can’t drink formula without using boiling water. The formula is often out of date – I have seen some that is two years past its “use by” date, or volunteers put it in bags to hand out so there is no clue of how old it is.
We found that in the camps we visited, 40 to 60% of mothers were formula feeding. These women often had just one bottle each, which they boiled between feeds on a makeshift stove with no brush or soap. We met babies who were sick or failing to thrive and our midwives began to work with women to resume breastfeeding where possible, building up breastfeeding supply or giving appropriate formula where necessary.