Mothers and babies are extra vulnerable in emergencies
The Sector > Research > Mothers and babies are especially vulnerable during natural disasters, study finds

Mothers and babies are especially vulnerable during natural disasters, study finds

by Freya Lucas

July 04, 2023

New research from the Australian Breastfeeding Association (ABA) and Western Sydney University (WSU) has unveiled the unique vulnerability of mothers and their babies during natural disasters. 


Both challenges and solutions are outlined in the ‘Want to help the children? Help the parents’: Babies and Young Children in the Black Summer (BiBS) Study which explores the Black Summer experiences of parents of very young children and the emergency responders who helped them.


256 parents of children from newborn to four years of age at the time of the Black Summer Bushfires and 63 emergency responders who supported families were surveyed or interviewed for the study.


Going into the research the ABA team was aware that Australia lacked proper emergency planning to meet the needs of families with very young children, however the BiBS Study confirmed the gap in disaster support for parents with babies and toddlers across emergency preparedness, emergency response and disaster recovery, ABA’s Breastfeeding Information and Research Manager, Naomi Hull said.


“We found that resources to support families with very young children to prepare for evacuation were lacking and that unprepared parents evacuated later than they wanted to because of the time it took to gather items for their child,” she added.


“Women were disproportionately impacted. Mothers often evacuated with their babies and toddlers on their own to large evacuation centres where they struggled to care for their children amongst the overcrowding, strangers and animals. Resources for caring for very young children in evacuation venues were often absent.”


Ensuring that bottle fed babies were safely fed was a common concern for parents, and while breastfeeding women expressed gratitude for being able to feed and comfort their babies through the disaster, they also experienced challenges and help was often not available. 


In the recovery phase, support for children often focused on children in the preschool years and beyond, with little support for the younger children despite their vulnerability.


“There was  a general expectation that parents would look after their children,” ABA’s lead researcher for the study and WSU academic, Dr Karleen Gribble, explained, “(and while) It is true that parents are very motivated to protect their children…this does not mean that they did not need help.”


For some mothers the focus on keeping children safe meant they did not eat or drink properly themselves, and two of the five pregnant women who were interviewed said they fainted while queuing during the bushfires. 


While gaps in emergency response were identified, ways forward to provide better support for families with very young children were also uncovered by the study. These included: 


  • targeted emergency preparedness materials for families with very young children, 
  • a separate area for families with very young children in evacuation centres, and;
  • providing supported environments for mothers with babies and toddlers to gather together during emergency recovery. 


“There is an urgent need to improve our emergency response to better meet the needs of very young children and their caregivers, and this research provides a road map to improve future emergency response,” Dr Gribble said.


Access the study findings in full here


To read the Study report, click here.

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