Breast Milk Ensures Children's Survival

Trapped miles from civilization in a snowbound car in subfreezing temperatures, Kati Kim had to ensure that her children survived until search parties rescued them.

Nine days later, the helicopters came.

Remarkably, Kim's daughters, 4-year-old Penelope and 7-month-old Sabine, were reported to be in good condition after the ordeal.

The key to this fortunate ending may have been the fact that Kim breast-fed both of them to keep them alive amid the harsh conditions once no other food was available.

Experts say the episode suggests how mother's milk, in a disastrous pinch, can make the difference in whether a child survives.

"The fact that Kati Kim was able to breast-feed both of her children for the amount of time that they were stranded most likely was lifesaving for them," says Dr. Sheela Geraghty, assistant professor of pediatrics and medical director at the Center for Breastfeeding Medicine at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati.

"Breast milk not only provides the calories needed to sustain life, it also helps prevents dehydration," Geraghty says.

"I'm really, really grateful that the mother had breast milk available for the baby, as well as for her other child," says Judy Hopkinson, assistant professor at the USDA/ARS Children's Nutrition Research Center at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

"This is a remarkable fluid in many ways. There is nothing better you can give a child in a disaster than breast milk."

"Lucky for these children that mom was breast-feeding," says Kathy McCoy, a lactation consultant at Clarian Health Partners Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis. "No one ever expects disaster to happen, but when it does, breast milk is truly a lifesaver."

Not Just Nutrition

Breast milk is often reputed for its nutritional benefits for children, but Hopkinson says human milk confers more than just sustenance.

"These kids weren't getting, I'm sure, all the calories they needed," she says. "So the breast milk was also giving them protection against serious illness, in addition to nutrition."

The idea that babies get an immune boost from breast milk is not a new one.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, breast-fed babies suffer fewer illnesses such as diarrhea, earache and respiratory infections.

"Breast milk is really primarily an immune booster," Hopkinson says. "We think of it as nutrition, but it is really integral to the immune system."

Breast-feeding, in this case, may have also given Kim and her children another way to survive in the harsh conditions -- body heat.

"Breast-feeding her 7-month-old and 4-year-old child was undoubtedly what kept Kati Kim's children alive during their horrific snowbound ordeal," says Michelle Collins at the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing.

"The very act of holding her children against her body to nurse them would have preserved their body heat, allowing them to maintain their core body temperatures despite the freezing temperatures outside their vehicle."

Breast-Feeding Amid Stress

The Kims' situation was nothing if not traumatic.

After the car ran out of fuel, and Kim and her husband, James, burned tires for warmth, James left her and their two young children and set off into the wilderness to seek help.

He still has not been found.

That Kim was able to continue to breast-feed her children while fearing for the survival of her family is a notable feat, Hopkinson says.

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