Thursday, January 04, 2018

Skin-to-skin can keep babies warm and safe in winter storms

Our television and social media feeds are filled with warnings of a "bomb cyclone" stretching from Florida and into Canada. Or as CNN puts it, 1,500 miles of winter storm warnings.

A 'bomb cyclone' — a powerful low-pressure system that rapidly intensifies — is forming off the
East Coast threatening to bring strong winds and potential tidal flooding to U.S. coastal locations.

There's snow in Tallahassee for the first time in 28 years, and states of emergency are rapidly being declared up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Canadians in the Maritimes are gearing up for what we call a Nor'Easter.

There are few things more stressful than the thought that you might have to wait out the storm with a tiny baby, perhaps without electricity or heat, during a winter storm with frigid temperatures and impassable roads. The good news is .... if you lose power you probably don't have to worry about your frozen milk stash. The bad news is, if you lose heat you'll be busy trying to stay warm!

So what steps can you take if you're at home with a new baby?

Skin-to-skin - a lifesaver:
Here's what nurse, educator, and International Board Certified Lactation Consultant Carole Dobrich did in Montreal during the Great North American Ice Storm:
Outside looked like a glistering winter wonderland, everything was covered in a thick layer of ice. The older boys had just come in from playing outside. Their hands and bodies were cold and it was time for a warm bath. Then the lights went out. It seemed the electricity was out everywhere, we all cuddled together to keep warm. It was January 4, 1998 and is known today as the Great North American Ice Storm. I had 4 young boys including a 2 week old. 
Carole spoke recently at a SafelyFed Canada presentation on safe infant feeding in emergencies in Montreal, recalling how public health nurses scheduled to do home visits had to cancel them because the storm kept them from getting into the city. Carole gathered up her two-week-old in a front-carrier, bundled a coat over the both of them, and walked to the homes of the families in her neighbourhood who had just birthed.
Babies continue to be born and one of the simplest ways to keep them safe, fed, and warm is breastfeeding and skin-to-skin. It is well known that skin-to-skin regulates an infant’s heart and respiratory rate, increases body temperature, regulates blood sugar, increases immunity, decreases stress hormones, and feels amazing. In cold weather skin-to-skin also has the advantage of warming more than one person. Skin-to-skin is not only for newborn babies. Toddlers, children, and adults can all do skin-to-skin which is known to have saved lives when cars have broken down in winter storms. This simple and very effective survival technique is essential should you encounter a winter weather emergency. Remember skin-to-skin means skin on skin and blankets around everyone not between.
Carole was able to dress warmly, navigate icy streets, and ensure her baby was snug and warm in a carrier beneath her coat because she lives in Montreal, a winter city, where people must master the art of keeping babies warm in the winter months. Montreal is also where McCord Museum curator Guislaine Lemay helps maintain a permanent exhibit of Indigenous traditional clothing including the amauti, or women's parka, with its amaut, or baby pouch, described by Lemay in a recent UpHere magazine article as "the ideal clothing to take care of your child, to carry it, to protect it, to do your daily activities knowing your baby is going to be just fine and toasty warm." Traditionally the amauti allowed mothers to keep their babies skin-to-skin inside the winter parka, resting on their backs, held snug by the garment's design, and shifted around to the front for breastfeeding.

Emily Attutuvaa, Baker Lake, Nunavut, where the
temperature ranges from -15C to -40C in winter.
This ancient garment - still made today in the Arctic - shows how important Carole's advice is to survival in extreme cold. Gitxsan baby carrier artist and entrepreneur  Liz Camsell, who lived in Resolute Bay, Nunavut and learned to how to wear babies there, says:
If it works in the Arctic, it's gotta be a good approach.
As Liz says, skin-to-skin contact is the way babies have survived and thrived in Arctic conditions, and families caught without heat in a winter storm can use skin-to-skin to keep their babies safe and warm.

No electricity or heat?
After the storm is over, reassess, and arrange for rescue to shelter if necessary.  Carole writes:
We were among the lucky ones and only lost electricity for less than a day. Other families were without electricity for over a month. Families had to be moved to relatives, friends or shelters with food and heating facilities.

This CTV news story from the midst of the storm includes
footage of an evacuated family with a tiny infant 
taking shelter on a train.

Baby's faces must never be covered by fabric:
If you must go outside with your infant, or if you are inside and it is very cold, you won't have a traditional amauti specially designed for to allow oxygen flow to the infant, to keep out cold air, and to release warm and moist air from the body. You will need to make sure your baby's face is not covered and that your baby has a clear airway. Arie Brentnall of the Canadian Babywearing School says:
Winter baby-wearing - Visible & Kissable! 
Baby carrying should be Visible & Kissable. Winter baby carrying is a wonderful tool to help caregivers get through a Canadian winter and all it has to offer. Baby's faces must never be covered by fabric, even in extreme weather. If you must be outdoors in an extreme event, your body warmth can be protective for your baby. By keeping them at a kissable height on your chest & maintaining visibility by keeping their noses and mouths exposed, you will be able to monitor your baby's airway & ensure their safety.
This advice about covering baby's face also applies to babies in strollers and car seats. 

Follow emergency authority advice:
Your local emergency authority has the best advice for conditions in your area. If you're still a day or two away from the storm, double-check your emergency kit and prepare for power outages with extra supplies, blankets, diapers and medication. Put an emergency storm kit in your vehicle - including a lighter, and a candle.

Shelter in place/wait out the storm:
If the storm has already hit, the advice is likely to stay off the roads, stay home, shelter in place.

  • Don't let last-minute storm preparations delay feeds. 
  • A breastfed baby is in a food secure situation during an emergency. 
  • A formula-feeding family is an insecure food situation and needs more resources to keep their child safely fed. 
  • Do not start formula feeding and do not wean your baby during an emergency. 
  • Even if you were weaning, or have a new baby but didn't plan to continue breastfeeding, keep breastfeeding through the storm, and until the danger has passed. 
  • If you are combo feeding, it's best to give your baby more access to the breast and discontinue formula feeding until the emergency is over.  
  • If you are exclusively feeding formula, this is a good guide to help you safely feed until the emergency is over. If your supplies are low or you need help, contact your local emergency authority.
You can follow SafelyFed Canada or SafelyFed USA on Facebook for more quick tips.

Do you have a story about surviving a winter storm with a baby? Share your tips in the comments section below.

* If you have to evacuate and you want to take your frozen milk with you, see our article "Evacuating with your frozen milk", September 2017.


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