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Caring for your baby in a disaster

A disaster is an event that brings an extreme amount of stress into your life. It may happen as part of nature, like a flood, earthquake or storm. Or it may be caused by people, like a terrorist attack or a car accident. It can affect where you live, how you get food, how you move from place to place and how you get medical care.

Caring for a baby can make a disaster even more stressful. Getting prepared ahead of time can make things a little easier for you and your family. 

What can you do to be prepared for a disaster?

Here’s what you can do:

  • Talk to your baby’s health care provider about what to do in case of a disaster. If your baby is in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), ask about the hospital’s disaster plan.
  • Be ready to follow evacuation instructions from your community or state. Officials can tell you how and when to leave the area and when it’s safe to go back home. Decide where you and your family will go if you have to evacuate (leave). Can you stay with family or friends in another town? Or do you think you’ll go to a shelter? 
  • Tell your baby’s provider where you plan to go and how you can be reached. If you have a case manager or are in a program like Healthy Start or Nurse Family Partnership, tell your case manager your plans and your phone number.   
  • Make a list of important phone numbers, including your partner and your baby’s provider. Keeping these numbers on your cell phone is great, but your phone’s battery may run low. So write the numbers on a piece of paper, too.   
  • Get copies of your baby’s medical records, including a list of medicines she takes and when she takes them, and the vaccinations she’s had. Your baby needs to get her scheduled vaccinations, especially after a disaster. If you can’t get to your baby’s health care provider, ask your local health department about how to keep your baby’s vaccinations up to date. 

You also can pack a bag of clothes and supplies for your baby. Here are some things to include: 

Clothing and baby care items

  • Diapers. You need about 70 a week for a newborn.
  • Clothes
  • Pacifiers
  • Toys that may help soothe your baby
  • Blankets
  • Baby carrier and portable crib

Food, medicine and safety items

  • Baby food, formula and bottled water
  • Medicine your baby takes
  • Non-aspirin liquid pain reliever
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Rectal thermometer and lubricant

What’s the best way to feed your baby during and after a disaster?  

Breastfeeding is best for your baby, especially during an emergency. Here’s why:

  • You don’t need bottles or water to prepare formula.
  • You don’t need a refrigerator to keep formula cold.
  • Breastfeeding can help calm you and your baby and make you feel less stressed.
  • Breast milk helps your baby fight off disease and infections.

For more information about breastfeeding during and after a disaster, visit La Leche League or call the International Lactation Consultant Association at 888-452-2478. If you’re staying at a shelter, ask the medical staff there for help.

If you’re feeding your baby formula, get ready-to-use formula in single-serving bottles. If you have to mix it, use bottled water and mix only the amount of formula your baby needs. Don’t make extra. When your baby’s done feeding, throw away any formula he doesn’t eat. 

What dangers can you look for after a disaster? 

Unsafe water. After a disaster, use bottled water and follow official announcements about tap water (water from your faucet). Follow instructions about boiling tap water for cooking, cleaning and bathing. 

Boiling is the best way to make tap water safe. To kill most harmful substances in water, bring it to a rolling boil for 1 minute. If you can't boil water, use chlorine or iodine tablets. Follow the directions on the tablet package. Do not use water treated with iodine or chlorine to prepare formula. Keep treated water out of reach of children. 

Sometimes flooding happens after a disaster. Flood water may contain harmful substances like bacteria that may cause serious disease. Protect yourself with rubber gloves and boots, and don’t let your baby near the water. If you or your baby does come in contact with flood water, use soap and clean water to wash any parts of your bodies touched by the water. If you or your baby swallows flood water and gets sick, tell your health care provider right away.  

Spoiled food. Don’t eat or feed your baby spoiled food or any food you think may be spoiled. For more information about food safety, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Dangerous chemicals. Listen for state and local announcements about dangerous chemicals in your area. Local officials may not let you return home until they’ve made sure the area is safe. If you think you or your baby has been exposed to dangerous chemicals, tell your health care provider. Or call the Organization of Teratology Information Specialists (OTIS) at (866) 626-6847.

How can you relieve physical and emotional stress after a disaster? 

Physical stress. To help relieve physical stress, rest often, don’t get overheated and try to eat regular meals during the day. 

Emotional stress. To help relieve emotional stress, share your feelings with someone—a friend, family member, a health care provider or a counselor. Talk to this person for a few minutes each day. Share your worries and concerns. Talking about them can help make you feel better.

The stress of a disaster can affect your relationship with your partner. Abuse is never OK. It’s not OK if your partner (or anyone else) hits, kicks or pushes you. It’s not OK if he yells at you, scares you or calls you names. If your partner abuses you, tell a friend or your health care provider. Or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799- SAFE (7233).

If you've just had a baby, you may have the baby blues. These are feelings of sadness you may have 3 to 5 days after having a baby. You may have trouble sleeping or be moody or cranky. These feelings usually go away about 10 days after your baby’s birth. If they don’t, tell your health care provider.  

If the baby blues last longer than 10 days, they may be a sign of postpartum depression (also called PPD). PPD is a kind of depression that some women get after having a baby. It means you have strong feelings of sadness or worry that last a long time. These feelings can make it hard for you to take care of your baby. PPD can happen any time in the first year after having a baby. If you think you may have PPD, tell your provider. If you’re worried about hurting yourself or your baby, call emergency services at 911. 

For more information

American Red Cross 
American Association of Poison Control Centers 
American Mental Health Counselors Association 
American Psychological Association 
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 
Girls and Boys Town National Hotline 
La Leche League
Salvation Army 
United Way

Last reviewed May 2014

See also: Disaster kit preparedness (.PDF, 459KB), Earthquake preparedness (.PDF, 390KB), Emergency preparedness (.PDF, 413KB), Hurricane preparedness (.PDF, 410KB), Tornado preparedness (.PDF, 350KB), Wildfire preparedness (.PDF, 455KB), Preparing for a disaster during pregnancy

Hazards around the home

  • Secondhand smoke
  • Spots of mold growth
  • Pesticides on vegetables and fruits or outdoors
  • Carbon monoxide from stoves and appliances
  • Lead from old pipes, old paint and certain toys

Frequently Asked Questions

Are plastic baby bottles that use BPA & phthalates safe?

Scientists are debating whether BPA (bisphenol A) and phthalates pose a risk to children's health. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has expressed concerns about chemicals used in plastics. BPA is used to make plastics clear, strong and hard to break. Some baby bottles, dishes and toys contain this chemical. Some research has found that bisphenol A can affect the brain, behavior and prostate gland in infants and children.

If you're concerned, buy BPA-free plastic baby products. You can also use baby bottles made of glass, polypropylene or polyethylene. If you use plastics, avoid plastics numbered 3 or 7 (look for the number in a triangle typically found on the bottom of containers). Use plastics numbered 1, 2 and 4. If plastic baby bottles and infant cups contain BPA, discard them if they have scratches. Don't put boiling or very hot liquids, such as formula, into plastic bottles or containers that contain BPA.

Have questions?