By: Michele Goergen

The benefits of proper Infant and Young Child Feeding (IYCF) practices are well documented.

Immediately upon birth, breastfeeding helps mothers expel the placenta, promote birth spacing, aid mother/child bonding and ensure adequate breastmilk supply. Longer term benefits of breastfeeding for mothers include loss of pregnancy weight and reduced risk of developing certain cancers. For the baby, the benefits are even greater. The risk of infection, hypoglycemia and hypothermia are reduced because breastmilk provides natural immunity to several diseases.  Breastmilk contains all the necessary nutrients and fluids an infant requires for optimal growth and development. The benefits of breastfeeding infants last into adulthood with some studies showing higher intelligence and reduced risk of obesity and diabetes in adults who were breastfed as infants. Economically, breastfeeding is free and there is less of a strain on health systems because of the reduced rates of infection that result from exclusive breastfeeding. Once a child is six months of age, breastmilk continues to provide almost half of all necessary nutrients. Proper complementary feeding practices starting at 6 months of age ensure infants consume all the necessary micro and macro nutrients to grow and develop into healthy children.

Unfortunately, worldwide Infant and Young Child Feeding practices are often inadequate. The Lancet article on breastfeeding states that in low and middle income countries, only 37% of infants under six months of age are exclusively breastfed. Complementary feeding practices are also sub-par with an average of 18.4% of infants 6-23 months receiving a minimum acceptable diet. Globally, ensuring proper IYCF practices would lead to a 20% reduction in infant mortality.

The impact of an emergency can be devastating for both individuals and entire communities. When emergencies strike, homes can be destroyed or people are forced to flee their homes. Food systems and markets breakdown, water and electrical supplies can be cut and accessibility is often limited in the hardest hit places. This results in high stress for families, especially pregnant and lactating mothers, who are often the primary person responsible for nourishing family members and making health care decisions. In emergency situations, family stress levels increase, food can be scarce and the threat of illness increases, all of which can lead to spikes in rates of malnutrition.

Adequate infant and young child feeding practices are often seen as the first line of preventing malnutrition and illness when emergencies arise. Infant and Young Child Feeding addresses the protection and support of appropriate (optimal) and safe infant and young child feeding in all types of emergencies, wherever they are in the world.

In an emergency, the risk of malnutrition can be reduced by following the three main IYCF-E Objectives:

Prevent harm

Protecting breastfed and non-breastfed infants by minimizing the risks of artificial feeding is the first line of defense in preventing harm during emergencies. In non-emergency cases, non-breastfed infants have 14 times increased risk of death compared to exclusively breastfed infants. This risk is greatly amplified in emergencies due to lack of sanitation measures, non-potable water supply and inappropriate formula distributions. IYCF-E programs work to mitigate formula donations before they reach the public, develop IYCF-E joint statements to be distributed to all implementing partners to ensure that IYCF-E interventions are safe, effective and appropriate in the emergency context.

Immediately save lives

Preventing infant death is the first priority in an emergency. Providing space and resources for caregivers of children under 23 months to support breastfeeding and complementary feeding practices are key interventions to reduce risk of infant mortality. Ensuring pregnant and lactating women and children less than 23 months can get their needs met in a safe and enabling environment can help them continue to breastfeed and increase chances of survival.

Focus on needs of the majority

In an emergency, it is not possible to provide individual ongoing support like in development programs. By focusing on the needs of the majority, clear messages can go out through multiple contact points to reach as many people as possible in the shortest period of time. Consistent and clear messaging ensures that all stakeholders are aware of IYCF friendly messages and that these messages reach those who need them most.

Increasing the IYCF-E response capacity by building minimum knowledge and skills of front line workers and people in charge of program design and implementation is the first step to saving lives with infant and young child feeding in emergencies.

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