Published: 03-10-2023 15:48 | Updated: 04-10-2023 14:28

Research passion and personal experience unite in PhD thesis on breast feeding in humanitarian emergencies

Illustration of a mother with her newborn baby
Illustration: Getty Images

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends infants to be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life to achieve optimal growth, development, and health. But in some contexts, such as in a humanitarian emergency, adopting and maintaining optimal breastfeeding practices could be challenging. Unpacking what the challenges and opportunities of breastfeeding support in humanitarian emergencies are, and how to conduct such support effectively, is the topic of Nieves Amat Camacho’s PhD.

Profile photo of Nieves Amat Camacho
Nieves Amat Camacho Photo: N/A

Nieves was not a newcomer to the field of research, nor to the context of humanitarian emergencies and nutrition when she began her PhD. The emergency nurse has previously worked with Médecins Sans Frontières in Congo, and with the WHO’s Emergency Medical Teams. After having completed a Master in Global Health at KI, she continued to work with the research group Global Disaster Medicine – Health Needs and Response. When considering how to best continue doing research, her previous experience working in humanitarian settings combined with her personal curiosity as a breastfeeding mother, united to shape a PhD topic that she is very passionate about.

Finding the best way to give breast-feeding support

- Breast feeding is a life-saving intervention. It is the best and safest thing for the child, especially in low-income settings and humanitarian emergencies, where lack of access clean water makes alternatives such as formula less safe. At the same time, in such contexts, breastfeeding can be challenging, especially for the mothers who were not breastfeeding before the emergency happened. Sometimes breast-feeding support initiatives overlook the mothers’ situation, and the obstacles they face, which results in the messages and support being misunderstood and distorted. I wanted to look at how we can find better ways to support mothers and infants and make them feel safe, says Nieves.

Her PhD is a collaboration between Global Disaster Medicine – Health Needs and Response at KI and the Center for Research and Training in Disaster Medicine, Humanitarian Aid, and Global Health (CRIMEDIM) at Università del Piemonte Orientale in Italy. The primary data collection has been done in collaboration with Médecins Sans Frontières in one of their nutritional programmes in northern Nigeria.

Improve operational procedures

Nieves thinks the strength of her research lies in its applicability to real-life settings. She hopes the research result could have an impact on development of operational guidelines for infant feeding in humanitarian emergencies and contribute to improved field-based recommendations.

Whilst continuing her work on the topic of breast-feeding in humanitarian emergencies, Nieves will also work with Global Disaster Medicine – Health Needs and Response on projects supporting the WHO’s Emergency Medical Teams initiative and strengthening national capacities for risk management of earthquakes and health emergencies