A poor nutrition situation exists across Syria as a whole after six years of war
Malnutrition is a major threat to children’s lives during emergencies. Lack of humanitarian access, a deteriorating health care system, reduced food production, limited dietary diversity, spiralling prices, untargeted infant formula distribution, repeated population displacement and destruction of housing are all factors increasing risk or poor nutrition. In 2016, 3.16 million children under five years of age and pregnant and lactating women in Syria were considered at risk of malnutrition and in need of preventive or curative nutrition services. Supporting safe feeding practices for these two most vulnerable groups can greatly increase the chance of infants surviving crises.
Breastfeeding saves lives
As a global public health recommendation, exclusive breastfeeding during the first six months of a child’s life provides them with all the nutritional requirements they need and protection against diseases, particularly important in contexts such as Syria when access to healthcare is constrained. Moreover, during emergencies breastfeeding provides a privileged nurturing moment that is important for both mother and child.
Uncontrolled Distributions of Breastmilk Substitute (BMS)
The premature cessation of breastfeeding is the most dangerous deviation from optimal feeding practices for infants and young children who live in the poor sanitary conditions that characterize emergency settlements, and who may already be sick or malnourished.
The surest way to help babies survive an emergency is to help their mothers continue breastfeeding.
Past experience has shown that mass amounts of infant formula are uncontrollably donated during emergencies and used by mothers who would otherwise breastfeed their babies. These appeals may originate with the media, aid agencies, governments or from individual efforts to help. However well-intentioned, BMS results in unnecessary illness and death for many infants.
In emergencies, when clean water is difficult to find and use, bottlefeeding exposes infants to life-threatening diarrhea, malnutrition and other complications. A milk bottle must be thoroughly cleaned and sterilized before it is filled with formula milk and clean water. Unfinished bottled milk also easily spoils without refrigeration, scarce in a crisis. When uncovered, a rubber teat is a source of contamination.
The cost and difficulty of procuring a steady source of artificial breast milk substitutes result in greater infant hunger, sickness and stress in evacuation centers.
How to help instead?
The vast majority of mothers experiencing breastfeeding difficulties in an emergency require support, not BMS.
- Should not respond to emergencies by sending infant formula milk or powdered milk as humanitarian assistance.
- Should prioritise increased funding for nutrition programming inside Syria that is longer-term, flexible and integrated with other sectors, including an increase in resources available for IYCF activities.
- Are encouraged to ensure that BMS is used safely, and only when strictly necessary.
- Instead of distributing BMS, should maximize their IYCF activities, such as by ensuring the availability of breastfeeding tents.
- Should ensure that IYCF is embedded in health, wash, other nutrition interventions, food and livelihood interventions as well as protection and shelter to ensure continuity and sustainability.
- Aid organisations need help from the media immediately after the emergency starts to prevent the arrival of donations of infant formula and other milk products. Journalists can refer to this fact sheet.
- Members of the public who become aware of aid agencies distributing infant formula or powdered milk inappropriately should report these activities to the relevant authorities.
Read about our IYCF activities in the camps of Northern Aleppo.