"The mothers had no privacy, there was no support for infant feeding, and independent volunteers were going tent to tent handing out bottles of formula."
Brooke Bauer, founder and CEO of Nurture Project International - and her colleagues recently set off to Eko Camp near Idomeni in Greece, to provide support and guidance to new refugee mothers on breastfeeding.
"Women in a situation of poor security will take anything that is offered to them, so even breastfeeding women will take formula milk. Many women think formula is healthier than their own milk and will start feeding it to their babies," she explained to The Guardian.
Formula use in refugee camps is dangerous because when the supply is unstable women will dilute the milk – they add water to it and the babies don’t get enough nutrients. Often the powdered milk, which is not sterile, can’t be heated properly. The formula is often out of date – I have seen some that is two years past its “use by” date, or volunteers put it in bags to hand out so there is no clue of how old it is. "
They were shocked upon their arrival at the camp to find it full of pup tents, with no privacy or support available for mothers - “It looked like Glastonbury” said Bauer. The team looked on as volunteers went from tent to tent handing out bottles of formula, and although they thought they were helping, it can in fact be dangerous.
Bauer was also shocked to see formula passed around that was almost two years past its use by date. It was no surprise to them that babies in the camps were sick. 40 to 60% of them were formula fed.
Midwives with the group worked with mothers to help them breastfeed again where possible and provided safe formula milk and equal support to the mothers with babies past the breastfeeding stage.
The group have set up private areas for mothers within the camps. They have transformed igloo dome tents into comfortable and welcoming living spaces. Providing bean bags, cushions and curtained off areas for midwife appointments, it is a relaxing setting for mothers to escape to - with or without their babies.
“A lot of breastfeeding is psychological – you have to have confidence, you have to have support," explain Bauer.
Having been there some time now, Bauer and the team are able to provide their support from birth and all newborns are now exclusively breastfed. Two camps are now completely formula-free.