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How newborns and their mothers are vulnerable to climate change

Newborns and mothers are vulnerable to climate change, particularly regarding breastfeeding. Protecting them through policies and adaptation efforts is essential for their well-being.

There is an existing relationship between climate change and breastfeeding. To understand it, it is important to recognise the potential carbon neutrality of breastfeeding and the consideration of women and their newborns as vulnerable groups within societies. This consideration should include policies and legislation that protect them from the impacts of climate change, as well as taking the necessary steps to help them adapt to the ever-changing climate while building bonds and engaging in mother-to-child nourishment.

Florida-based public health physician Catherine Parker Toms. Photo courtesy Climate Tracker, used with permission.

In an interview on the Caribbean Climate Calabash podcast, public health physician Catherine Parker Toms, who leads the South Florida-based programme Green Cars for Kids, explained, “Children are the most at risk [88 percent] when it comes to vulnerability to climate impacts, and this is worldwide.” This risk includes potential exposure to famine, drought, tornadoes, and hurricanes. This increased burden of climate impacts is also borne by pregnant women, “especially when it comes to extreme heat,” which, of course, is felt more acutely in Small Island Developing States (SIDS) like the Caribbean, a region that lies close to the equator.

A 2020 study by women’s health physician and climate advocate Bruce Bekkar and his colleagues showed a relationship between pregnant women’s exposure to heat and air pollution and preterm birth, low birth weight, and stillborn babies. The findings addressed the need to recognise mothers and their newborn babies as a vulnerable group, much like the sick, elderly, and disabled, because they are susceptible to much more than the average person.

“[W]e know that pregnant women are at risk, and one of the things that makes them and others vulnerable to heat is dehydration,” Parker Toms said. Staying hydrated is as important to the mother as it is for her baby, in that “you can help keep your baby hydrated [through milk production] when you have that constant communication and that need to breastfeed. You’ll remember more frequently to give proper amounts of liquid to your baby with the breast milk. So, that is a very important part of building resilience as an individual to climate change and protecting your baby.”

She went on to explain that the carbon emission relationship the baby formula industry has with climate change is energy-intensive, producing waste that is harmful to the environment, not to mention the major land clearing that is done to facilitate cattle grazing and the gas emissions made by the cattle themselves. In comparison, breastfeeding does not require any artificial production to nourish babies, with the study calling its natural nutritional health benefits — for both mother and baby — “nature’s perfect way of ensuring continuity of life and making sure that the infant is protected.”

Among its benefits, the report highlighted breastfeeding as using “not nearly as much water” as formula, and “not as much waste — not just paper, metal, and plastic, but also milk waste.” In addition, when women are breastfeeding, they don’t menstruate, negating the need for hygienic aids like tampons or sanitary napkins, that are not environmentally friendly.

Jamaican lactation consultant Simeca Alexander-Williamson. Photo courtesy Climate Tracker, used with permission.

In the same podcast conversation, Jamaican lactation consultant Simeca Alexander-Williamson agreed that newborn mothers and their babies are vulnerable, and alluded to the fact that breastfeeding is much more carbon neutral than other methods of providing nourishment. However, she added a broader perspective. “I think that so many other industries have decided to prey on moms,” she said, referring to the diaper industry. Diaper production contributes to the buildup of plastic waste, which in turn releases higher levels of pollution and carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

“However, there is more at play than what the various industries contribute to,” Alexander-Williamson continued. “To make a real dent, the government has a very important role to play when it comes to things like maternity leave and policies to support breastfeeding mothers. Yes, directly breastfeeding contributes to a reduction of your carbon footprint, but when you have to go back to work and [have] to think about pumping and storing the breast milk, there’s much more at play.” Many mothers use plastic bags to store their pumped breast milk, although some are now switching to reusable containers. Either way, she stressed, “you still have to go ahead and use carbon-intensive resources to ensure that you feed your baby.”

As much as “we are able to support breastfeeding,” Alexander-Williamson said, “we have to keep in mind that we have to do our part with policies in order to enable that, because everything adds up, and one person can’t make a difference. It has to be a collaborative effort where the government, climate action organisations, and the newborn mothers’ community work together to ensure sustainability, and social or climate justice for such a vulnerable community.

Observing the way in which formula companies “come down in full force” during key periods like the hurricane season, the lactation consultant explained, “They tend to offload whatever they have expiring because they want you to believe that you need to have formula in excess so that if a disaster does strike, you have supply to give your baby.”

Conversely, “organisations such as the La Leche League will tell you that you have the milk right there naturally [for breastfeeding]. There’s nothing that you need to do. So, whatever happens, once your baby is with you, that is the best source. It’s a matter of us not undermining the mother’s ability to believe that she can. It really starts from there. Yes, there are medical reasons why a mother might not breastfeed, but if we empower her and have her believe from day one that she can, it makes that much more of a difference. Empowerment not only comes from telling her that she can, but also from creating the environment to support that ability,” Alexander-Williamson added.

This call to action led to another discussion about active policies in Jamaica and the United States that are geared towards breastfeeding and climate change. Although Jamaica has taken steps to facilitate more bonding time for mothers, fathers, and children with paid maternity leave and newly introduced paternity leave policies, nothing currently supports mothers and their newborns in facing a violently changing climate, which is where advocacy comes in.

“[T]hat’s something that every one of us can do in different ways,” Parker Toms said, pointing specifically to US-based legislation like the Protecting Moms and Babies against Climate Change Act, a subset of the Black Maternal Momnibus Act, which was put in place as a response to the fact that the United States has the highest maternal mortality rate of any high-income country. Statistics have been showing worsening trends, with the maternal mortality rate in 2021 being 89 percent higher than the rate in 2018.

According to Parker Toms, the provisions in those Acts “really can make those connections between the vulnerability of infants, pregnant women, and climate,” offering a template for crafting similarly responsive legislation in Jamaica and other Caribbean countries. The first step, however, is acknowledging that, just like any other vulnerable group, mothers and newborns deserve climate justice.

This story was published by Global Voices with the support of the Caribbean Climate Justice Journalism Fellowship, which is a joint venture between Climate Tracker and Open Society Foundations.


Picture of Candice Stewart

Candice Stewart

Candice is a storyteller who takes pleasure in extracting the lessons learned from difficult and pleasant experiences through insightful means. She holds an MA in Communications for Social and Behaviour Change from the Caribbean Institute of Media and Communication (CARIMAC), writing human interest articles. Candice enjoys meaningful conversations and learning about people’s experiences. From there, she often shares the hilarious, gripping, and intricate details for audiences to consume.

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