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Sunday
Jul162006

Breastfeeding Katrina Stories

Written by my VBAC mama in New Orleans:

In the days following Hurricane Katrina, I saw images in the media of women stuck at the Convention Center, Superdome and on house roofs with flaccid babies in their arms, begging for something -- anything -- to feed their babies. At least one baby was born in an attic after the storm.

Having a 13 month old at the time and being evacuated from New Orleans, I connected with these women on a powerful level. I nearly cried seeing those dehydrated babies and their desperate mothers. My daughter nursed at my breast while I was watching the news coverage. That made my heart ache even more.

We were lucky. We had plenty of resources to get out of the city and to safe haven with friends. During our 12 hour drive to Birmingham (and subsequent drives of similar duration to Houston then Springfield, Louisiana), I would simply climb into the back seat and offer my breast to the baby when she needed it. I wondered what formula feeding mothers were doing, as we drove past town after town with mile-long lines at gas stations and stores closed due to the electricity being out. The stores that were open looked like wastelands, their shelves emptied of essentials like water by the thousands of other evacuees.

I wondered about the evacuees who ended up in shelters. While at a Target in Houston (the store happened to be near the Astrodome) I saw a woman wearing a shelter wristband shopping with her infant. Relief agencies had given the evacuees gift cards to the store, but I couldn't imagine where I would even begin were I in this woman's place. We had clothes for the kids. We had money. We had friends to stay with. She had nothing.

Even though we lost quite a bit in the flood waters, we were lucky. We had places to stay. My husband is a carpenter so there is no shortage of work. We were in the process of buying a house when the storm hit and are now living there (it was undamaged). We are living on the Westbank, which came through the storm better than most parts of the city. When we returned in October, stores were open, utilities up and running, essential services intact. My baby nursed through it all, weaning herself in November at the age of 16 months.

On Father's Day 2006 I gave birth to one of the many "Katrina babies" conceived shortly after the storm. She was born at one of only 3 hospitals in the area that are delivering babies right now. When the lactation nurse came to check on us the morning after my daughter's birth, our conversation turned to the storm. No matter where you are, that's where conversations invariably start -- or eventually go. Strangers in line at the grocery store ask, "how'd you make out in the storm?" as naturally as saying hello.

The nurse told me she stayed at the hospital through the hurricane and its aftermath. The day after the storm, a woman came to the hospital laboring with her 5th child. She had had epidurals for each of her other labors, but that was not an option this time -- the hospital had no electricity and had to conserve every precious bit of power being supplied by the generators. No monitors unless absolutely necessary. Mom did wonderfully birthing her baby without the epidural.

When the lactation nurse came to talk to the mother about breastfeeding, she said all of her other babies had been bottle fed. The nurse told her she needed to breastfeed this one. The hospital had a limited supply of formula and it had to be saved for the babies who absolutely had to be bottle fed. Mom was scared. She had never breastfed and wasn’t sure if she could do it.

You can do it, and you have to do it, the lactation nurse told her. The hospital didn’t have enough formula to go around. Besides, you don’t know where you are going, what kind of access you will have to grocery stores, or clean drinking water to mix formula for that matter. And if you end up in a crowded shelter, your baby will need the protection breast milk will give her.

“Every time I saw her after that,” the nurse said, smiling, “that mom was nursing her baby.” When the order came to evacuate every last person from New Orleans a week after the storm, the NICU babies went out on helicopters. All of the other babies and mothers were taken out by nurses in their personal cars. As this new mom was getting ready to go, the person in charge of the evacuation asked if she needed a supply of formula to take with her. “No,” she said, beaming. “I’m nursing my baby.” Desperate times had forced this mother to walk into unfamiliar territory, to detour far from her comfort zone -- but her journey brought her a great sense of pride, happiness and intimacy with her new baby. The nurse’s eyes glistened as she told the story.

It’s been nearly a year since the hurricane. Almost every baby I’ve seen since returning to the city has had a bottle in its mouth or at the ready in the diaper bag. I’m still one of the rare mothers here who breastfeeds her baby. I had hoped to see more of a change, a sign of lessons learned from the storm. Still, thinking about the mother who finally took a child -- her fifth -- to her breast gives me hope.

Maybe hearing her story has inspired other mothers to do the same.

References (1)

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  • Response
    - Navelgazing Midwife Blog - Breastfeeding Katrina Stories

Reader Comments (12)

Wow, thanks for sharing! I had similar thoughts when nursing my youngest and watching the coverage ... what will those women with the tiny babes do.... .

THANKS FOR SHARING! GOD BLESS YOU!!

July 16, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Wow!

I know I wept more than once at the hungry babies, even more so because I really can't provide all my babies needed, despite every intervention, pumping religiously, etc, etc....it's like i hit a glass wall.....

I can't imagine choosing formula, needing it, because of medical complications, but never choosing it....

I'd assumed that Katrina would have encouraged relactation and/or breastfeeding for those who went through it...how sad that isn't the case......

Jill

July 16, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterOpening Pandora

To me, this underscores the problems facing women when it comes to breastfeeding. I have to qualify I'm not American, nor black, nor poor, I'm a white middle class tertiary educated stay-at-home Australian mother ;). But to me, that more women AREN'T breastfeeding now says that these women find the obstacles to breastfeeding huge... because the benefits of breastfeeding are SO obvious when you're in a situation like Katrina and the aftermath.

Women can only breastfeed successfully if they have social and family support, opportunity to do so (i.e. their workplace provides facilities for pumping or feeding, and yes I'm assuming working status because that is often a barrier to breastfeeding, especially for poorer people), and confidence in their ability. Society hasn't changed that much in the aftermath - and it's tragic that it hasn't :(.

July 17, 2006 | Unregistered Commenteranastasia_wolf

Anon: I know my NOLA friend will read this, too. She is so wonderful in writing these painful stories down. It took her a long time to verbalize the pain she lived through during her harrowing exodus last year.

Jill: I know... it really must be so unfair that women with plenty of milk choose not to nurse while you, with every desire in the world cannot physically breastfeed. I cannot imagine the pain in your heart.

(I'm not feeling well, so am hunkering down at home and only going out when I have to. Sorry I didn't come over yesterday. I will try to come this week sometime.)

AW: You are absolutely correct about support systems not being in place. 100% correct. And for working moms, it is even less. The women in New Orleans live on so much public aid, formula is so easy to obtain.

Where are the LLL leaders? The businesses that offer breastfeeding rooms in addition to enormous salaries and bonuses for nursing moms? Where is the support?

Thanks for writing.

July 17, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterNavelgazing Midwife

How wrenching. And I, like so many others, had the same thoughts. I can only imagine the pain, the helplessness of listening to your baby cry from hunger, and not having the formula needed. It is sad that a lesson was not learned, that more women don't appreciate the necessity of breastfeeding, the importance of it, for so many reasons.

July 17, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

So, we all agree it is sad. What could we do to remedy the situation? How could the women in New Orleans be reminded they should be nursing? By telling them the levies are still vulnerable? That New Orleans might experience a Katrina-like hurricane again while they have babies?

How would that intensity translate to other areas? Do we need to threaten catastrophe in order to strong-arm women towards nursing?

July 18, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterNavelgazing Midwife

I’m sorry but I read this post and went ballistic. I have seen Katrina used to suit many political agendas but this? “… threaten catastrophe in order to strong-arm women towards nursing?”
No, thanks – been through enough of that this year.

“Almost every baby I’ve seen since returning to the city has had a bottle in its mouth or at the ready in the diaper bag.” Evacuating and nursing a 13-month-old is very different than a newborn. By the time my son was one year I could nurse him without waking up. My daughter was a different matter.

My 3 year old son was an emergency c-section (long story) so with my daughter, I had a scheduled c-section one week prior to my due date. I have a history of having a pretty high tolerance to drugs. I have never taken anything recreationally so it is a biological thing but after waking up in the middle of a wisdom tooth extraction and feeling a bit of my son’s c-section it was not unexpected that the same sort of thing could occur this time around. Luckly I have a high tolerance for pain and a pretty hard head to boot. During the operation I slowly started feeling the surgery in action. I did not want to be put under and I thought they must be almost finished so I kept my trap shut as long as I could. I wanted to see the baby right when she was born but when the pain had me on the verge of screams I finally spoke up. The anesthesiologist said everything looked fine on the machines and I should not be feeling anything at all but since I could clearly identify the sharp and dull pricks on my feet (along with scalpel in my gut) they put me under a general. I tell that story to show that I am not a weak person and I would go through almost anything for my children. It also is interesting because, oddly enough, that is like the least memorable or important event of that week. When someone asks about the birth of the baby I never even tell this part of the story. It’s hardly even a footnote.

When my son was born I attempted breast-feeding but received little support from my mother (who repeatedly claimed I was starving the baby in forceful and screeching tones) and my husband (who listened to my mother but was not as loud). Eventually, I did succumb to the lure of the bottle, as a back up, but continued to breast feed a number of times a day as well for over a year. As a working mother this compromise worked very well but with my daughter I had prepared those around me better for a breast fed baby – I was determined to make it work this time around. The pediatrician at the hospital kind of laughed when I said the baby was a champ at nursing and I thought my milk had already come in. “It must have. She has only lost 4 ounces so she must be getting something!”. All was hunk dory until 3 days after her birth. At 5am on Saturday, I wandered down to the nursing station and told them to turn on the TV because the storm was now headed straight for us. Since I was kind of stuck in a hospital bed and awake at all hours I had been watching the situation very closely and suddenly things were starting to look very bad for the greater New Orleans area. It took all day but at about 5pm we were finally released. We went home and quickly packed. I put the baby in the crib of her new nursery, took some pictures of her, picked her up and we got out of dodge.

The hours on the road over the course of that night and most of the following day could have been worse. I was glad for the painkillers. I was happy that I was not going through this 9 months pregnant. I learned it is much easier to take a 3 day old on a long road trip than a 2 year old. On Sunday I actually cried a lot while we were driving because the storm was then a cat 5. That REM song kept rolling through my head “It’s the end of the world as we know it….” I knew we were not going to be fine.

By the way, next time – please don’t “climb into the back seat and offer (your) breast to the baby”. Even a fender bender could cause your child to be crushed by your own body weight. Pull over for feeding’s. The delays are a small price to pay.

Over the next few days we watched TV like everyone else. I watched as much as I could just trying to catch a glimpse of anything familiar. I have a friend who is the captain of NOPD swat team – I saw him a few times. I also spotted a fireman or two that we know – they were the only people I was certain were all right, at least at the time the footage was shot. I caught sight of the flooded school near my mother's house and the church near my in-law’s house in Lakeview. The Target that they kept showing that was a flooded, crumbling mess is near my home and it looked bad. Indeed, things were not fine for any of us. We tried to call everyone we knew but since we had swapped cell numbers (instead of the landlines for the locations where we were headed) that was useless. I was in a panic about an elderly Aunt and Uncle in Alabama. I spent hours trying to figure out how I could get into the disaster area and search for them, while still breastfeeding and without putting the baby in harms way. I knew they had stayed (the storm was coming here, not AL) and for CNN to talk about how bad the damage was in such a small town you knew it must be really awful – and it was. I actually packed up to go find them but cooler heads prevailed. I don’t know how to describe it but the uncertainty and the strain of those first few weeks were unimaginable. Then the weeks turned into months...

The stress and lack of sleep caused my production to drop sharply. Staying with so many people afforded little privacy and that did not help things (I am not going to breast feed in front of my cousin’s new stepson’s that are 12-year-old twin boys). Everyone needed me ALL the time, not just the newborn. My mother could sit and cry for hours about losing a purse or a book from her grandfather – any special thing was mourned individually as they entered her mind. She required lots of talk time. My son was old enough to know what had happened but not really understand. He was lashing out in all kinds of ways. He would not drink water or get in a wading pool because water was “dangerous” and would “make you sick” (we turned the TV’s off after that). He even turned kind of violent which intensified sharply after my husband left to try and salvage what was left of his company and to start working on our house. My son really fell apart and needed lots of attention. Then there were the Red Cross and FEMA and insurance companies and unemployment and all kinds of life issues to deal with. It was all just too much to deal with at once.

When I returned, also in October, I seem to have found things a little more rough than is described here. I don’t live on the West Bank so that may have made a difference since the West Bank was virtually unscathed comparatively. Our power and cable were both fickle for a long time. We did not have phone service until January and that still drop’s out occasionally (which might have something to do with the telephone pole that is still standing only because it is tied to a tree in my back yard). At first there were hardly any stores at all. In our area there were no grocery’s, just a Super Wal-Mart and it closed at 5pm and had a very limited stock. A trip there would always take hours because the lines were so bad. Drive-thru’s, takeout or delivery were almost non-existent and the wait at an open restaurant was often 2 hours or more. It seemed like everything took so much time because of the lines. Nothing was easy at all. For several weeks it seemed like there were few women here at all, much less any children. My son’s school was totaled and even today 85% of the daycares are still closed. In October and November I don’t think there were any open at all. Until December there were no open playgrounds that I am aware of. Most were closed until spring. I could not even take the children for a walk around the block because of decaying refrigerators, toppled trees and flood debris that were scattered everywhere. Just getting by was extremely difficult and there were always more issues to deal with (contractors, FEMA, insurance…).

At some point, long ago, I stopped breastfeeding entirely and mine is one of those babies with a bottle in the bag. I am sure there are people that could have handled everything but I could not. Had my baby been a few months older and our routine (and my production) been well established things might have been different, actually I am sure they would be different, but that was not the case. I can’t beat myself up over it because I know I really tried and honestly – I still have bigger fish to fry.

By the way – she is always the happiest little thing and is just as pretty as a picture. She is as healthy as you could ever pray for and has never had an infection of any kind. She is pretty good with her sign language things and has been walking for a few months now (since 8 mo) and loves nothing more than holding on to her brother’s shirttails and using him as a human push toy. I don’t think my failures have harmed her in any way.

July 21, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterjaime in metairie

Jaime: It's so interesting that you felt compelled to share so much of your very painful story even when it didn't pertain to the breastfeeding part. In fact, I see your story as a REALLY dramatic reason TO continue nursing!

SerraNova brought up the point about the stores being on limited hours (I know they still are) with limited supplies - why would you want to take a chance that your baby might not have anything to eat!?

And as for not nursing in front of kids - well, how else are they going to learn it is normal to feed a baby from the breast? Would you shield them from a cat nursing her young? A calf with a cow? Why would you even consider not feeding your own child - in a time of extreme stress and fear - from your breasts... the most secure and stable thing in a newborn baby's life.

Your arguments about everybody needing you made me shake my head. Your BABY was helpless. Everyone else, except maybe your toddler, was 100% self-sufficient. Sure, your toddler might have needed you more, but you can always be near a toddler while you are nursing a newborn. Even in a crisis.

I hear your guilt through your words, even as you profess to not feel guilty at all. It isn't that you *should* feel guilty, but explaining how wonderful your child is is an example that somewhere, you are worried. It's okay. I'm sure she's great.

I didn't see the post as exploitive AT ALL. At all. It was one woman's experience. Yours is another. Hers isn't any more exploitive than yours was.

Be gentle on your NOLA sisters, eh?

July 21, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterNavelgazing Midwife

jaime in metairie:
I am not judging you, I have not walked in your shoes...but I have to wonder about what you wrote. Trying to understand where you are coming from. I assume it is okay to ask, since you posted your story.

I really do not see how this post is used to suit any political agenda. It is a stark example of how disaster and catastrophe can happen, and when a mother is nursing her baby, the worry of where the food for that baby is coming from is gone. It is one of the most important considerations. It was written by a mother who survived Katrina, like so many others. SHe wrote from her heart.

I wonder why you would not nurse your baby in front of your cousin's new stepsons. Could you not turn around so they couldn't see, if you are embarrassed? Isn't nourishing your baby more important than what someone else thinks?

And yes, others needed you, but who needs more from their mother than a newborn baby? Your mother needed you, certainly....but a newborn needs their mother to survive.
You talk about the difference nursing a 13 month old and a newborn. There are differences, but a newborn needs that breastmilk and the protection almost more than an older baby.

You are absolutely correct, an adults body weight can harm a baby in a carseat if there is a crash. Pulling over is always a good idea.

So, I have to ask this.....you said "At first there were hardly any stores at all. In our area there were no grocery’s, just a Super Wal-Mart and it closed at 5pm and had a very limited stock. A trip there would always take hours because the lines were so bad." What if you were never able to get formula for your baby? Your supply was low, but humans are animals of survival. What would you have done if there was no formula to be had, anywhere?

What I got from the original post, was that the disaster of Katrina can and should highlight the necessity of breastfeeding. To not be so quick to dismiss the need and security of being able to provide for our baby, even in such dire straights.

July 21, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterSerraNova

I don't believe we should ever "strong arm" women toward nursing, but I can't fault the nurse in the original story who told the mama of five that she had no choice other than breastfeeding. Pointing out necessity is not the same as strong-arming, in my view.

The Katrina situation is not the first to highlight the importance of breastfeeding in a disaster zone. It's a frequent problem in developing countries that are prone to natural disasters.

In many places feeding formula is either a sign of affluence, or a necessity to a woman who will be leaving her youngest in the care of her oldest and returning to work as soon as possible.

In April of 1991 I was living in Costa Rica with my spouse and my children, aged 5, 3 and 5 months. My then 78-year-old grandmother was visiting us. We took a trip to visit the beach house my father-in-law kept just outside Puerto Viejo on the Carribean coast.

On Earth Day, April 21, there was a 7.4 earthquake whose epicentre was about 30kms from our location. We were there with limited electricity (the house still had a generator - although electricity had only been brought into the area a couple of years earlier, most people had already gotten rid of their generators or not replaced ones that had broken down) no phones (and pre cell phone), gasoline being rationed for emergencies, and no ability to drive back to the city in any case as most large bridges up the coast had been knocked out.

We were stuck in the area for three days before an aquaintance with a small plane came looking for us and took us out. My little family evacuated over two days because there was not enough room for us to travel together. If we were not so well connected we would have been there much longer.

We were okay for water because we had access to a well. Every child and adult in the area was okay for food because bananas and coconuts grow everywhere, because many villagers kept chickens, and because the fishing boats what were undamaged could go out once the after effects of the tidal wave settled down. Also there were land crabs living under the coconut palms.

But the local shop (yes, singular) and roadside kiosks ran out of several basics within 36 hours: rice and beans, bottled water, and infant formula.

I had never been so glad to be a breastfeeding, cloth diapering mama. I worried about the well water giving out. I worried about getting balanced nutrition for my kids and my granny who are not normally big fish eaters. I worried about running out of gas to run the generator which pumped the water and gave us a radio to listen to. But I never once worried about my baby. I knew his needs were being met. It was a huge relief to have one person on my responsibility list that I could take care of with comparative ease.

But we humans are remarkably slow learners. I wouldn't like to put "may run out in a disaster" on my list of disadvantages of formula feeding in prenatal class, but it's a reality faced by thousands of families around the globe every year.

July 22, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterLucina

Thanks for posting this!!
I kept screaming at the tv. Nurse your baby....
I am still weeping...

August 1, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJustthe4ofus

Lovely story!

May 19, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterFiona

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