In societies where women never doubt their ability to breastfeed, mothers have suckled their babies for centuries during famines and wars and saved their lives. In societies where bottle-feeding has become common and confidence in breastfeeding has declined, women have breastfed even less during emergencies. Aid workers did not realize that when they distributed commercial milks and bottles, they were destroying women's confidence, stopping their babies stimulating their breast-milk production and increasing the risk of illness.
If you understand how women's bodies work, despite the stress, you can help yourself and others to cope with a difficult situation. Stress has no effect on the milk-making hormone (prolactin), but it can have a temporary effect on the hormone which makes the milk flow out of the breast (oxytocin). The temporary stoppage of this reflex is a useful biological mechanism to stop milk being ejected from the breast at difficult moments.
Stress has always been part of life and if it destroyed breastfeeding, the human race would never have evolved. When an early human mother and her baby were escaping from a wild animal, it would help for the milk flow to stop while she was running away. But as soon as she reached shelter, the flow would re-start through putting her baby to the breast.
We know the signs of fear: a dry mouth, increased heart beat, cold feet and trembling. These signs slow down after a while, even when the cause of the fear continues. It is the same with the oxytocin reflex: the milk flow may stop for a short time when you are very shocked, but even though the cause of the shock remains, the flow of breast-milk will resume as long as you keep putting your baby to your breast.
The milk-making system is very robust. The oxytocin reflex is sensitive: it can stop temporarily, but it resumes quickly. We all need comfort during stressful times. Ask someone to give you a gentle back massage. This can help your oxytocin reflex, together with the baby suckling freely, to stimulate the breast-milk to start flowing again.
Breastfeeding, with skin-to-skin contact, helps you feel closer. This can help your baby feel secure and limit the damage of the emotional traumas of stressful situations. The breastfeeding hormones help many women feel calmer in stressful situations.
Show this booklet to the health professionals or anyone who is trying to help you. The most important point for health professionals, aid workers, family or friends to remember is that a few minutes of comfort and reassurance can get breast-milk flowing and protect a baby's health and life. Distributing bottles and artificial milk can cause illness and death.