Replete after drinking her mother's milk, 2-month-old Meika slept soundly on a futon at an evacuation center in Shichigahama, Miyagi Prefecture, as her mother gazed at her in relief on March 24.
"I finally can breast-feed again. Thank you," Mari Suzuki, 23, said as she bowed to Nami Akamatsu, 28, also a nursing mother of a baby girl.
Suzuki is a tsunami and quake survivor at the Shichigahama Kokusaimura town facility, which is serving as an evacuation center.
Suzuki and her daughter were at her parents' home in the town when the quake struck on March 11. She fled to higher ground, grabbing a few diapers and baby clothes. Her parents' house was washed away by the massive tsunami triggered by the magnitude-9.0 earthquake.
Suzuki took refuge at the evacuation center with 10 other members of her extended family. They took turns carrying Meika outside the room so her cries would not bother other evacuees.
The next day, however, Suzuki's milk stopped flowing, apparently due to a lack of sleep.
For several days, she had to feed her daughter baby formula, supplementing it with as much breast milk as she could manage.
"My daughter felt lighter than before when I held her," she said. "She did not sleep because she was hungry." Suzuki was at a loss as to what to do.
On March 16, five days after the earthquake, Suzuki left the center on an errand, asking her mother to take care of Meika. When she returned, she was surprised to see her daughter being breast-fed by a stranger.
The woman was Akamatsu, mother of 18-month-old Tsumugi and a resident of Shichigahama.
Akamatsu had heard about Suzuki's plight through a friend who had heard a radio announcer say, "A baby at the Shichigahama evacuation center is at risk due to a lack of (mother's) milk."
The information had been sent to the radio station by one of Suzuki's relatives, who was worried about the pair.
Akamatsu said she rushed to the center because she "wanted to help that woman because I am the mother of an infant (myself)."
Akamatsu, with Tsumugi, had spent the first night after the quake at an evacuation center in devastated Natori, in the same prefecture. Recalling how cold it was that night, she thought Suzuki "must be having a difficult time with her infant."
As soon as she arrived at the center on March 16, Akamatsu found Suzuki's mother and immediately put Meika to her breast.
Akamatsu was worried at first that the baby would reject her milk, but Meika soon began suckling eagerly. The baby was apparently so hungry she kept drinking for a good 20 minutes before falling fast asleep.
Akamatsu said to Suzuki when she left the center, "Feel free to contact me whenever you are in trouble."
As more relief materials arrived at the center, including food, Suzuki was soon able to resume breast-feeding.
On March 24, the two mothers met once again at the evacuation center. Suzuki and Akamatsu talked about their new friendship.
It turns out that both women were born on March 25.
Holding Meika on her lap, Suzuki said, "Here was a person (Akamatsu) who thought about others even amid all this devastation. I was truly grateful."
Meanwhile, the Yoshida-Nishi children's center in Watari, also in the same prefecture, became a home for babies and small children three days after the earthquake.
At 5 p.m. on March 24, dinner was served in a classroom at the center.
Rie Hanzawa, 27, was spoon-feeding her 10-month-old Yoshiki, holding him on her lap. Until baby food in retort pouches was delivered March 21, the people in charge of preparing food had provided "okayu" rice gruel for Yoshiki.
"This is my first child, and I know nothing about child-rearing. Worse, I lost my home due to the disaster," Hanzawa said. "But other mothers and nurses here are helping me a lot."
Hanzawa first evacuated to Yoshida Elementary School, next to the children's center, where the number of evacuees swelled to 1,400 at one point.
Like the other babies, Yoshiki began crying at night. Hanzawa said she had been unable to sleep at all. They spent two nights huddled with just one blanket each, and Yoshiki soon caught a cold.
A couple of days later, a group that included local child-care specialists announced they were opening a shelter nearby for families with babies and small children.
"A mother's stress affects her children" in such dire circumstances, said Hitoe Watanabe, a 46-year-old child-care specialist. "But if everyone shares the same problem, everyone understands each other."
A 35-year-old woman from Watari, who is at the children's center with her 18-month-old daughter and is also seven months pregnant, said, "I feel as if we are all one big family here, as I can chat with the other mothers and nurses. I want to give birth to a healthy and strong baby."
(This article was compiled from reports by Kenji Izawa, Kazuyuki Ito and Mariko Furuta.)
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