Yesterday, on the Full Cream facebook page, I shared a photo of a woman breastfeeding her baby in a field in front of a smoky, bushfire tinged sunset. The photo was accompanied by a post from internationally respected infant nutrition expert Ted Greiner, who was discussing the life and death importance of breastfeeding in emergencies and the urgency of protecting breastfeeding in a changing climate:

 

The woman in the photo (a blogger, who had publicly shared her photo image on social media in a post with over 4000 shares) contacted me requesting that I remove my post. She stated that she did not agree with Greiner’s commentary and did not want her photograph being used to support his message. As I know that this blogger considers herself a breastfeeding supporter, I asked her to reconsider, explaining the advocacy aspect, but she replied that she did not consent to her image being used to ‘traumatise’ evacuated mothers who don’t breastfeed or cause them worry their babies might die on top of everything else going on.

I don’t think it’s reasonable to police the way in which people on-share images which have been intentionally publicly shared, particularly when your online presence is a monetised parenting blog with 18,000 followers. But it’s a stressful time for us on the east coast of Australia right now and we can have discussions about social media etiquette some other time when our country isn’t burning. I removed the post and note that Ted also updated his to replace the photo with a link to the original post.

I’m not naming or linking to the photos because really, this is not about this one particular person. If you want to go sleuth it out on Facebook, fill your boots, it’s easy to find, but it’s really not the point. The point is that Australia is on fire and right now as I type babies are isolated in precarious feeding situations and more will suffer this way over the coming months as the unstoppable fires continue to burn and families flee. And I am so damn furious at the way in which necessary and urgent discussion and action which could have prevented that suffering and distress – and ensured babies were better protected and provided for – has been and continues to be stymied because sharing information about safe baby feeding doesn’t get beyond the gatekeepers who think that it is too much of a risk to the feelings of mothers who don’t breastfeed.

Advocates for mothers and babies have been working for months to improve emergency preparedness ahead of the Australian bushfire season. We saw this coming. But when Dr Karleen Gribble, an Australian expert in Infant and Young Child Feeding in Emergencies (ICYF-E) published a guide to the supplies needed for evacuation kits for breastfed, expressed milk fed and formula fed babies – accusations flew of ‘bottle shaming’ and ‘judgmentalism’:

 

Dr Gribble’s agenda, apparently, was not to create a resource which would enable families to care for their baby, no matter how that baby is fed, under emergency conditions. Nah, she was just sneakily showing off about breastfeeding being superior and trying to make formula feeding families feel terrible. This is where the endless bickering about choice and ‘just as good’ and breastfeeding bullies has gotten us, to the point where life saving information is rejected outright because talking about how to prepare formula in a way which will keep your baby alive and healthy is seen as kicking mothers while they are down.

But far worse than the public response was the utter disinterest shown by organisations and officials who should know better. The lack of traction was astonishing. Ahead of Australia’s deepening bushfire crisis, government, emergency services, and various relevant national bodies were contacted with this information and did not update their evacuation advice. They published lists for what your pet will need – but human infants were left to rely on whatever happens to be nearby or thrown in the car when their family evacuates.

Even the media showed barely a flicker of interest. Our national emergency broadcaster, the ABC, practically had to be begged to discuss the issue. Last week, on a day before predicted extreme conditions when thousands of people were leaving ahead of the fire danger, I rang ABC Illawarra  – whose broadcast zone covers some of the most seriously fire threatened areas in NSW – twice to ask them to share this information before families who were evacuating left potentially without adequate feeding supplies. Nothing was broadcast.

As the stories of bushfire refugees are coming out, we are hearing of mothers washing bottles in toilet handbasins,  towns without safe water, fuel shortages, families with babies stranded in cut off towns or sleeping by the side of the road due to traffic queues. There is a photo from Malua Bay which shows among the evacuated crowd a family with a tin of formula and a couple of bottles on the beach, watching the town burn. Can you imagine preparing a bottle in 40 degree heat and strong winds, on sand, every breath filling your mouth with smoke and ash, with no running water to clean your hands or the bottle and no idea how long the bottled water you brought with you is going to need to last?

In Australia at the moment we are becoming weary of being sanctimoniously told that we shouldn’t discuss climate change while people’s houses are burning down. It’s not the time, it’s too political, it’s exploiting tragedy for an agenda. Many are resisting this. We know that the time for action and change is while the worst is visible, because once it is over, the adrenaline wears off and we adjust to our everyday lives again. It is the same for infant feeding in emergencies and a changing future climate. If not now, when?

With disaster unfolding, this is exactly where we are at. Pictures are emerging of mothers caring for babies and young children amidst flame and ruin but instead of allowing those stories to inform proper future planning and protection we are making it worse by the pretence that it is unkind and inappropriate to call for action. We know that mothers do struggle with guilt and grief when they aren’t enabled to breastfeed which surely makes it all the more urgent – if we do actually want fewer mothers to have that trauma deepened under the deprivation and stress of emergency conditions we need to act swiftly.

Consider whose interests are served by accusing the people who are working the hardest to protect the lives of children of causing harm. Consider the consequences of allowing things to return to business as usual. And for goodness sake, stop pretending that mothers are too fragile to be able to cope with reality. Time is too short and babies are too precious.

 

Breastfeeding Advocacy Australia will be holding a workshop on Infant & Young Child Feeding in Emergencies in Brisbane on 24/2/20, presented by Dr Karleen Gribble, Jodine Chase and Carole Dobrich. For details or to register, click here.