Expert drives unprecedented ‘call for action’ on infant and young child feeding during emergencies

Dr Karleen Gribble, an infant feeding expert and Adjunct Associate Professor from Western Sydney University’s School of Nursing and Midwifery, has joined leading health and emergency organisations to call for better support of infant and young children feeding during emergencies (IYCF-E) in Australia.

According to Dr Gribble, the bushfire crisis of last summer laid bare the challenges carers face when trying to look after their children during emergencies.

“Infants and young children are particularly vulnerable in a crisis. They have immature immune systems, have specific food and fluid needs, and rely on others for care,” said Dr Gribble.

“While adults can live on just water for days, without appropriate food and fluid, infants can be in real trouble within a matter of hours, especially when the weather is hot. Babies can’t wait.”

“After the devastating events of this year and last, it’s clear that consistent support is not being provided to those caring for young children — this includes support of their feeding needs during emergencies.”

Dr Gribble’s research into Australian Federal, State and Territory and Local government emergency planning found that content addressing the needs of infants was lacking at all levels of government.

“The need to support the mothers and caregivers of infants has been overlooked in Australian emergency planning,” said Dr Gribble.

“An audit of Australian emergency planning found that no government agency has responsibility for ensuring that infants and young children are protected through well-coordinated and appropriate emergency planning and response.”

Dr Gribble stated that this lack of planning meant that when bushfires ravaged New South Wales and Victoria last November, infants were placed at risk.
“Parents and caregivers who had to evacuate had no guidance from governments or emergency organisations on what to pack for their baby.”

“Despite the fact that many mothers experience breastfeeding difficulties in emergencies, there was no support for breastfeeding in evacuation centres and caregivers of formula-fed infants were also left without necessary support.”

“I spoke to a mother who had difficulty breastfeeding her few-week-old baby but could find no one to help her. She obtained infant formula from the evacuation centre but the town had no power and the water was contaminated, so there was no safe way of preparing the feeds. She and her baby suffered because of the lack of planning.”

The call for action has amassed support from leading health, women’s, and emergency organisations, including the Salvation Army, UNICEF Australia, the Australian Breastfeeding Association, and the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation.

It advocates for the health and wellbeing of infants in future emergencies to be prioritised through the following actions:

  • Urgently designate the Australian Government Department of Health as the national agency responsible for providing advice and support to the states and territories on IYCF-E in the Commonwealth Disaster Response Plan.
  • Establish and appropriately fund a national advisory committee on IYCF-E, composed of stakeholders from governments, academe, emergency and health-related non-government organisations, and excluding commercial interests, to adapt international IYCF-E guidance to the Australian context and develop national planning principles for IYCF-E.
  • Commission the Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience to develop an Emergency Handbook on children including IYCF-E.
  • Include detailed advice for health workers on how to support mothers and other caregivers of infants in emergency preparedness, and in the feeding and care of infants and young children during emergencies in the updated National Health and Medical Research Council’s Infant Feeding Guidelines for Health Workers.

More information on the initiative is available here (opens in a new window).


13 November 2020

Ali Sardyga, Media Officer