Supporting infants, children and families in an evacuation

Emerging Minds, Australia, June 2024

Resource Summary

This practice paper is part of a series of resources on child-centred and family-focused disaster preparedness, response and recovery. Find the full suite of papers in Supporting infants and children in disasters: A practice guide, or explore more tools for supporting children and families who experience disasters in our Community Trauma Toolkit.

Every year, disasters force more and more families to evacuate their homes. Children and parents can be profoundly impacted by their experiences during an evacuation. But appropriate protection and psychosocial support can reduce their distress in the short term and prevent mental health difficulties from developing in the longer term. For those children and parents who need to spend time in an evacuation or relief centre, the setting, facilities, provisions and support available will shape their disaster experience and potential recovery.

This practice paper explains why it’s important to consider pregnant people, infants, children and families in evacuation planning and management. It provides practical considerations and strategies for ensuring evacuation procedures and centres meet the needs of infants, children and families and enhance their safety, wellbeing and recovery.

Key messages

  • Disasters are stressful and potentially traumatic events that can disrupt infants’ and children’s development and adversely impact their physical and mental health.
  • Depending on the disaster, families may choose or be required to evacuate from their homes or another location. Children and their parents can be profoundly impacted by their experiences during an evacuation and in evacuation centres.
  • Families with infants and young children have specific needs that must be considered in evacuation planning and management.
  • For children and families who need to spend time in an evacuation centre, the setting, facilities, provisions and support available to them will shape their disaster experience and potential recovery.
  • Practitioners working or volunteering in the planning and/or management of evacuations and evacuation centres play a vital role in supporting families to protect and care for their children.
  • Monitoring your own wellbeing is essential in your work supporting children and families during an evacuation, and necessary to protect your mental health in the longer term.
  • There are many ways in which practitioners involved in planning and managing evacuation processes and centres can meet the needs of infants, children and families to mitigate post-disaster adversity.
  • Having ‘child friendly spaces’ in an evacuation centre has many benefits, including protecting children from physical harm and reducing their psychological distress.
  • Providing parents with supplies that meet their children’s basic needs and psychosocial support reduces their burdens and distress. This benefits parents’ emotional wellbeing and capacity to provide responsive and nurturing care to their children, which supports their children’s mental health.


Who is this resource for?

This practice paper is for anyone who is, or may in the future be, supporting infants, children, parents and/or families who experience a disaster. It may be particularly useful for those involved in evacuation planning or who work in an evacuation or relief centre.

This includes practitioners and workers, leaders and volunteers in:

  • health services
  • social and community services
  • education
  • first response and emergency services
  • government (policymaking and agencies and services); and
  • non-government organisations and community-led initiatives.

For ease of reading, we refer to individuals in all these roles as ‘practitioners’.



The terms ‘children’, ‘parents’, ‘practitioners’ and ‘evacuation centres’ are used throughout this resource and we define them in the following ways:

Children: includes newborn infants, babies and children up to 12 years old.

Parents: the biological, adoptive, foster and kinship carers of a child, as well as individuals who have chosen to take up primary or shared responsibility in raising that child.

Practitioners: all individuals with a role that involves or might involve supporting infants, children, parents and/or families in the context of a disaster of any kind.

Evacuation centre: A building or place designated to provide temporary shelter and meet basic personal needs of people who are unable to seek safe shelter elsewhere during a disaster or other emergency. Centres are located in areas not expected to be affected by a hazard or unfolding disaster. In some jurisdictions the term ‘relief centre’ is more commonly used.

Part A: Foundational knowledge

Disasters are often unpredictable, and their impacts can be devastating for communities, families and individuals across Australia. We are experiencing an unprecedented number of disasters, with recent estimates suggesting more than one million children experience a disaster in an average year in Australia (Deloitte Access Economics, 2024). This means more children than ever before may be forced to evacuate and potentially spend time in an evacuation centre.

Many Australian households include infants and young children, who rely on adults for their survival, safety, emotional regulation and help to make meaning of their experiences. Without support before, during and in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, children’s safety and wellbeing can be put at risk, causing distress and, potentially, long-term developmental and mental health difficulties.

The first part of this practice paper outlines:

  • the experiences and needs of infants, children and families during an evacuation and in an evacuation centre
  • why it is crucial to respond to these needs; and
  • the importance of first considering your own wellbeing and your role.

The experiences and needs of infants, children and families during an evacuation

In Australia, there is a clear opportunity to enhance support for infants, children and families, including pregnant people, during evacuations and in evacuation centres. Child-centred and family-focused support has been inconsistent or absent in this context. For example, during Victoria’s 2019–2020 bushfire season, many caregivers reported being underprepared, lacking an evacuation plan, and finding it physically and logistically difficult to prepare and pack when evacuation was imminent (Gribble et al., 2023). As a result, evacuations were often delayed, and many caregivers arrived at often overcrowded evacuation centres without necessary supplies and resources.

Additionally, most evacuation centres lacked the facilities to support the specific needs of families with infants and young children, including designated spaces for sleeping and infant feeding. While some practitioners were acutely aware of the vulnerabilities of very young children and their caregivers at evacuation centres, research following the bushfires found that the needs of very young children ‘were often not visible to the broader population of emergency responders’ (Gribble et al., 2023).

‘… the emergency response to very young children and their caregivers in Australia is inadequate. Very young children and (predominantly) mothers, are bearing the brunt of this and are being exposed to avoidable risks.’

- Gribble et al., 2023

Children experience disasters very differently to adults. Infants and children have particular cognitive, emotional, social and physical capabilities and needs that place them at greater risk of injury, illness and death during disasters, and adverse mental health, development and/or educational outcomes.

Infants and children are more reliant on caring, trustworthy adults for safety, support and help to cope with potentially traumatic experiences. Without this support, it’s harder for them to deal with physical and psychological distress.


Priority populations

The risk of adverse outcomes during and after a disaster is even higher for children with physical and/or mental health conditions or pre-existing family adversity. Parents and family members may also be anxious about evacuating with children with medical conditions and unsure whether their needs can be met at an evacuation centre (Yamazaki & Nakai, 2023).

Children already facing systemic or structural inequities are also more likely to experience negative outcomes following a disaster. Those at higher risk include infants and children who:

  • are Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander
  • are from a new migrant or culturally and linguistically diverse background
  • live in rural or remote areas
  • are in families with lower incomes or who are experiencing homelessness
  • are exposed to family and domestic violence
  • are involved in the child safety or foster care system
  • have a parent with a mental or physical illness
  • are members of rainbow families (LGBTQIA+ parents)
  • have very limited resources, including social capital (relationships, support networks and community connectedness).

To learn more about risk and protective factors for infants’ and children’s mental health in the context of disasters, read Why we need to support infants and children before, during and after disasters.


The risks for pregnant people

The experiences of a pregnant person during an emergency can directly impact the health of their baby, including whether they go into premature labour. Traumatic and stressful experiences during pregnancy can also impact on an individual’s mental health, and the mental health of their baby.

Adverse experiences can influence an individual’s ability to bond with their baby in utero and/or their attachment and capacity to provide responsive care to their newborn baby. This can negatively affect infant mental health and development. Stressful experiences during pregnancy also can predispose parents to post-natal depression, with adverse impacts on their bond with their baby and capacity to provide responsive care to their infant (and possibly to other children if this is not their first baby).

Why evacuation is a potentially traumatic experience for infants and children

Disasters caused by bushfires, floods, cyclones and storms are increasingly common, frequent and intense in Australia. Ideally, communities and families are prepared and evacuation before or during such disasters is planned and coordinated. But that is not always possible.

Deciding to leave their home during a disaster can be a difficult decision for families to make. There are lots of factors to weigh up, including threat to life if the family decides to stay, and the potential dangers they may face during the evacuation process. In some states or territories, the government has the authority to force families to evacuate their homes during a disaster, which may increase their distress.

The experience of evacuating is more physically and logistically difficult for families with young children. But regardless of age, evacuating can be extremely stressful for both parents and children – particularly if the evacuation is enforced or family members are reluctant to leave. An evacuation that is unplanned – or that doesn’t go to plan – can put people’s lives at risk and expose them to potential physical and psychological harm.

The potential for adverse mental health outcomes for infants, children and their caregivers extends far beyond exposure to the hazard itself, or the ordeal of having to leave their home or the place where they were sheltering. Families can be profoundly impacted by their experiences in the places where they seek shelter, including evacuation centres. Children may be exposed to unsettling sights, sounds, unfamiliar people and experiences that can exacerbate their distress and increase the risk of trauma responses or mental health difficulties.

The potential for ongoing stress responses

The experience of evacuating can be extremely stressful, so a stress response is common and to be expected. It can be helpful, providing energy and focus to take self-protective action – but can also interfere with decision-making.

Typically, when a threat has passed, stress hormone levels fall. But some people will continue to experience a state of stress. For example, after a parent has evacuated with their family to a safe place, their stress response might continue to be activated. A prolonged stress response can lead to feeling emotionally overwhelmed, fearful or distressed. Parents may find it difficult to manage their own physiological and emotional response, which can make it challenging to respond to their children’s needs.

During evacuation, there are many factors that can sustain, increase or alleviate an individual’s stress response. For example, a child’s stress can be extended by experiences such as:

  • being separated from their family during an evacuation
  • feeling overwhelmed by an over-crowded, noisy evacuation centre; or
  • sensing that their parents, or other adults around them, are distressed or frightened.

If this heightened sense of threat is prolonged, it can impact on a child’s relationship with their parents and disrupt their development, functioning and mental health.

‘When we went to the recovery and relief centre, we would see other friends and neighbours who had survived. People would be incredibly relieved and distressed at the same time, often recounting their experience in detail and talking about people who had died. And we had the children at our feet. They would have heard and sensed everything being shared. I often wonder how much harm this caused them.’

– Bron, mum of two, reflecting on her family’s experience of a bushfire

Children, especially young children and infants, look to their parents or the adults around them for a sense of safety. If parents are distressed, their children are far more likely to be distressed too. Infants are particularly attuned to how their parents are – or are not – responding to them. If parents are distressed or overwhelmed, they may find it difficult to fully respond to the needs of their infants or children.

Parents will need support to regulate their emotions and regain focus. Providing an environment where parents feel they and their children are safe helps them to remain calm, so they can notice and meet their infant’s or child’s needs for care. This in turn protects their child’s mental health and wellbeing.

This underpins the importance of supporting families to evacuate early and – wherever possible – to a safe location where they can stay with family or friends. For families required to stay in an evacuation centre, the goal should be to provide a calm, supportive and psychologically safe environment.

Plan to manage your own wellbeing first

In the high-pressure environment of disaster response, individuals managing or supporting an evacuation and/or working or volunteering in evacuation centres often face numerous challenges. As a practitioner, you may be exposed to high levels of stress, trauma and uncertainty in these situations, which can affect your physical and mental health.

If you will be supporting children and families during a disaster, it is important to think about how you will look after your own wellbeing. There may be times when you are working at full capacity and feel like you don’t have the time or energy to look after yourself too. However, it is essential to find moments to prioritise your own and your family’s wellbeing. This will allow you to create a buffer from the potential risks that come with responding to disastrous events, enabling you to effectively support others in the short and longer term.

Select the headings to read some helpful strategies for taking care of your wellbeing during a disaster:

    • Recognise that it’s normal to experience a range of emotions during challenging situations.
    • Practice self-compassion: be kind to yourself and offer yourself the same support that you would to a friend or colleague facing similar circumstances.
    • Be aware of the types of situations or people that might trigger an emotional reaction for you. It’s important to be aware when it might not be appropriate for you to support others, and be prepared to step away.
    • Aim for adequate sleep/rest, nutrition, hydration and some physical activity.
    • Consider limiting stimulants (e.g. caffeine, sugar) and depressants (e.g. alcohol) as they can interfere with sleep, concentration and your mood.
    • Pay attention to your wellbeing and look for signs that you may be experiencing mental health difficulties. Take advantage of available resources, such as the Black Dog Institute’s article on coping in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, or professional support to help you process and make meaning of your experiences.
    • Limit your exposure to media (social and mainstream) if you’re feeling overwhelmed or distressed by reports about the disaster.
    • Make time outside of work to do things that help manage your stress levels, such as physical activity, creative activities or spending time with friends. Plan some activities to look forward to in time.
    • Try to establish boundaries between your support role and your home life. Reflect on your own strategies to help you do so: for example, maybe while driving home you listen to your favourite music or phone someone from your support network.
    • If you’re working in an evacuation centre, look for opportunities to find a calm moment to yourself. For example, take a short walk outside or listen to a podcast or music when you get a break.
    • Use strategies to regulate your arousal. This may include ‘grounding techniques’ such as focusing on your breathing, observing your surroundings and using the five-senses grounding technique (name five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste).
    • Connect with supportive and positive friends and colleagues for emotional support and perspective on your experiences.

By looking after your own wellbeing, you will be better equipped to provide compassionate and appropriate support to children and families who are affected by the disaster. You will also be able to model positive coping skills and behaviours that can help children feel safe and calm.

Learning about child-centred and family-focused support in advance of a disaster can help reduce the stresses and feelings of overwhelm when working or volunteering to support evacuations or in evacuation centres.

Part B: Practice guidance

Practitioners working or volunteering in the planning and/or management of evacuations and evacuation centres play a vital role in supporting families to protect and care for their children. Some may be required to support children directly, during and after a disaster. Infants’ and children’s recovery is significantly improved if they receive support, comfort and reassurance from safe, trusted adults as early as possible following a disaster.

It is critical that the needs of infants, children and families, including pregnant people, are centred in disaster risk management processes – including the planning of evacuations and establishment of evacuation centres. For more about child-centred disaster planning and preparedness, refer to our practice paper, Disaster preparedness with a focus on infants, children and families.

The following sections offer guidance on practices for evacuation and evacuation centre management that recognise and meet the needs of infants, children and families. It may not be feasible to address every concern or implement every strategy. But learning how you can take proactive steps to meet the immediate needs of infants, children and families can make a significant difference to their physical and psychological wellbeing during and after a disaster. Moreover, it can help you feel more confident and capable in your work.

Key principles to guide psychosocial support

There are five essential elements that can be used to guide psychosocial care for pregnant people, infants, children and parents in many disaster contexts, including evacuations. These elements were developed through expert consensus, informed by international research and practice experience, to guide care and support for individuals experiencing distress after disasters or other potentially traumatic events (Hobfoll et al, 2007).

The five elements of psychosocial support are about promoting:

  • a sense of safety
  • calm
  • connectedness
  • self-efficacy and collective efficacy; and
  • hope.

These five core principles can inform your responses to individuals of any age who are distressed during and after a disaster – including infants and children, as well as their parents. They can also guide your strategies in planning for evacuations in a way that supports the wellbeing of infants, children and their families.

You can read more about these principles in our practice paper about psychological first aid.

Planning to meet the needs of infants, children and families in an evacuation

Evacuation involves moving people and assets away from a hazard to a safer location prior to, or during, a disaster, to protect them. To be as safe and effective as possible, evacuations must be appropriately planned before a disaster occurs. Many services, such as schools and early childhood education and care providers, are required to have an emergency policy and procedure in place, including evacuation plan and a ‘shelter in place’ plan should it be too dangerous to leave.

One of the key messages for the community around evacuation management is to be prepared and informed (AIDR, 2023). Evacuation is not a one-size-fits-all process; it depends on the type and severity of the hazard, the location and characteristics of the population, and the available resources and infrastructure. Some evacuation sites may be local, while others may involve travelling long distances to reach a safer location.

There are many opportunities to consider the needs of children and families in preparing for evacuations as part of emergency planning. These include:

  • providing advice and support to families with dependent children about household emergency planning that includes preparing for an evacuation
  • planning for evacuation of children from services and facilities such as early childhood services, schools, hospitals, community-based health and social services and sports centres
  • contributing to evacuation planning at the local community level, as part of developing a local disaster management or emergency plan that considers the needs and capabilities of children and their families.

Families with infants and young children require specific attention in disaster planning due to their children’s needs and reliance on adults to protect them during an evacuation. Children may be physically unable to protect themselves – for example, to run away from fire or to swim through flood waters – due to their age or physical abilities. Young children also do not yet have the cognitive ability to estimate risk and know how to remove themselves from danger.

Evacuation of families, particularly those with infants or very young children, is often physically and logistically more difficult. It is important for individuals, families and communities to have a clear understanding of what evacuation entails, what their roles and responsibilities are, and what they need to do before, during and after an evacuation.

Families should be advised to:

  • have a written household emergency plan
  • pack an emergency kit that they can take if they evacuate
  • practice evacuations as part of their disaster preparedness activities
  • evacuate early or immediately if advised by emergency services.

Practitioners who work in health and community services are often well placed to provide advice to families about emergency planning, including being prepared to evacuate. They often understand the specific health conditions or social circumstances their clients are facing, and can provide tailored advice about navigating challenges families may face if evacuating in an emergency. For instance, health practitioners supporting expectant parents could include advice on emergency planning and evacuation as part of antenatal healthcare. Community services supporting foster and kinship carers might provide information about preparing for evacuations with the children in their care.

It is particularly important for parents and carers of children with disability or special medical needs to have emergency plans and evacuate with essential resources, such as specialty feeding supplies and medications. Acknowledging that this is not always possible, community plans need to consider how to accommodate and support children with disability or special medical needs and their families. The Person-Centred Emergency Preparedness tools and resources by Collaborating4Inclusion can be used to prioritise the needs of children and parents living with disability in emergency planning at an individual and community level.

Important things to keep in mind when planning for or managing the evacuation of children and families:

  • Encourage families with dependent children to act early if they are going to evacuate. This will minimise the risks to their children’s safety and wellbeing, including their mental health.
  • Families may leave without provisions to meet their children’s needs, even if they have prepared to evacuate. Therefore, it is essential that services have some provisions to meet the basic needs of infants and children who are required to evacuate. The next section outlines a list of suggested provisions.
  • Consider how you can support families who may not have the physical or social resources (e.g. finances, transport or social networks) to undertake emergency planning and prepare to evacuate.
  • Consider how to minimise children’s exposure to distressing sights, sounds or discussions.
  • If parents and children are separated when an evacuation is advised (e.g. at work and at school), parents may put themselves in danger to get to their children.
  • Consider having an online space or dedicated phone line where parents can get information about collecting their children from early learning services and schools during an evacuation. This reduces the potential they will contact emergency services such as ‘000’ trying to get more information.
  • Encourage families to stay together if they evacuate and find shelter together in the same location, where possible. Children, like adults, will worry for any family members who they are separated from. This can increase their risk of distress and the potential for experiencing a trauma response.
  • Identify the strengths and support needs of at-risk populations, and find ways to address any barriers in the physical environment that may make it more difficult for some people to evacuate. For example, pregnant people, parents with infants or toddlers, and parents or children with medical issues or disability may not be able to climb a ladder onto a ship or helicopter.
  • Having pets or animals/livestock is a key reason people refuse to, or delay in, evacuating when under threat of a disaster (Taylor et al, 2015). Plan for how to support families who are evacuating with, and also without, their pets/livestock.

For further information on supporting the needs of infants, children and families in disaster preparedness and planning, refer to our practice paper, Disaster preparedness with a focus on infants, children and families.

Establishing a family-focused evacuation centre

For children and families who need to spend time in an evacuation centre, the setting, facilities, provisions and support available to them will shape their disaster experience and potential recovery.

Planning and management of evacuation centres should be informed by research, recognised guidance and policy, practitioners with knowledge of child development and health, and families with lived experience.

The needs of infants, children, families and pregnant people should be considered when assessing locations, buildings and infrastructure, and when planning the management of an evacuation centre, including staffing, facilities and provisions. Ideal venues are those with multiple rooms and spaces to accommodate defined areas for families, a child friendly space, and a private space for feeding infants.

The Australian Breastfeeding Association’s infographic depicts ways to meet the unique needs of babies and toddlers in an emergency, which should be considered when planning or activating an evacuation centre.

Protect physical safety

When evaluating the suitability of local venues as evacuation centres, it’s important to consider any potential hazards for infants or children, such as busy roads, steps, balconies, stairs, kitchens or food preparation and cooking areas, and bodies of water. If these hazards can’t be avoided, consider how children can be protected from any risk they pose.

Ensuring the safety of children in an evacuation centre is crucial. Evacuation centres should be planned and managed with reference to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s 10 national principles for child safe organisations (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2018). The principles include ensuring physical environments are safe and promote wellbeing; informing children about their rights and allowing them to participate in decisions that affect them; and equipping staff and volunteers with the knowledge and skills to keep children safe and support their wellbeing.

Children and women are at increased risk of experiencing violence and abuse during and following disasters, including in evacuation centres (Seddighi et al, 2021; Foote et al 2024). It is essential to plan and manage evacuation centres, and the transfer of people in and out of them, to ensure women’s and children’s safety and reduce the risk of violence during and after a disaster. Gender and Disaster Australia’s Roadmap Web Resource Kit provides practical introductions as well as in-depth information about the importance of applying a gendered lens to disaster.

Disasters are unpredictable and even with planning and preparedness, it’s likely that an affected community will need to be responsive to the emergent needs, using the available resources and facilities. Often evacuation centres are established with limited warning and resources, and may be entirely reliant on community volunteers. The Assistant Principal of Corryong School described her experience of working with a small number of community members to transform the school into a makeshift evacuation centre, as bushfires destroyed properties in the community in December 2019.

‘… my job was whenever they asked for something I had to find that in the school grounds. So, open up more classrooms, get more chairs, wind out the mats so kids could sleep on them. … So I just kept opening up areas in the school, making sure … kids were all down [the] A block corridor, classrooms were set up for families who had kids that needed to sort of run around a bit, finding water.’

– Chrissie McKimmie, School Leader Corryong College (ACATLGN, 2024)

Provide essentials for infants and children

Evacuation centres can ease some of the stress and discomfort for families by ensuring they have basic items to meet their needs. Basic provisions should include:

  • water
  • bottle-feeding and bottle cleaning supplies (including different types of infant formula, access to hot water for washing feeding implements, an ability to boil water, and detergent)
  • signs in the toilets advising that baby feeding bottles and supplies should not be washed there and directing parents to ask for assistance
  • a designated private space for infant feeding
  • age-appropriate food for infants and children of different ages, including solid baby food
  • food for parents and children who may have allergies (i.e. gluten-free, nut-free options)
  • dummies
  • size-appropriate nappies and clothing
  • baby-change equipment and facilities to dispose of nappies and wipes hygienically
  • equipment for safe sleeping and bathing, such as cots, mattresses and a baby bath
  • easy access to first aid kits, medications suitable for infants and children, and equipment that may be required for infants and children with disability or chronic health needs
  • sensory tools or kits that can support regulation and soothing such as headphones, weighted blankets, soft toys, small pillows, play doh, fidget toys, colouring-in books and pencils, and building blocks
  • clean toys, books, games and activities appropriate to a range of different developmental stages
  • access to technology for older children (if possible).

Supporting infant feeding in emergencies

It is particularly important that evacuation centres have provisions to support the feeding of infants and young children. World Health Assembly Resolutions and the Australian National Breastfeeding Strategy (COAG Health Council, 2019) require plans for feeding infants and young children in emergencies (known as IYCF-E) to be implemented by Australian governments. However, research has shown planning for infants during emergencies is generally inadequate (Gribble et al, 2019). This was clearly identified in a study of babies’ and young children’s experiences during the 2019-20 bushfires (Gribble et al, 2023). The Australian Breastfeeding Association has developed a suite of resources about the feeding needs of infants and young children for anyone planning or supporting families in evacuation centres.

Ideally, support from health providers knowledgeable about children should be available to parents in evacuation centres. If on-site assistance with infant feeding is not possible, parents should be referred to the National Breastfeeding Helpline (1800 686 268). Infant formula and other feeding resources should be provided to families after an assessment of need by a health professional.

Creating a calmer environment in an evacuation centre

Beyond making the evacuation centre safe for families, it’s important to consider ways to minimise stress for children and parents and to make the environment as calm as it can be in the circumstances. For example:

  • Set up designated quiet areas where families can check in together upon arrival. This ensures families stay together during chaotic situations.
  • Try to prioritise entry and access to resources for parents with infants and young children.
  • Commonly one parent (often mothers) will evacuate with children – for example, if their partner is taking action to protect their property or involved in emergency response efforts. Evacuation centre staff should be aware of this and able to proactively offer assistance.
  • Recognise and respect the cultural diversity of families by providing culturally appropriate food, religious accommodations, and space for traditional practices and rituals where possible.
  • Place families with young children as far as possible from areas where there are injured and/or extremely distressed individuals.
  • Provide a separate area for families with infants and young children. Ideally, this area should have appropriate lighting (e.g. dimmed in sleeping zones but bright enough for safety and nappy-changing), be close to the toilets, and have access to clean water (for drinking and cleaning bottles).
  • Provide a private space for feeding infants.
  • Where possible, create quiet zones with dimmed lighting, as sensory stimuli can add to the sense of being overwhelmed and contribute to continuing nervous system arousal and distress.
  • Aim to protect infants and children from media reports and adult conversations about the disaster and its consequences.
  • Provide access to a range of toys, books and activities for infants and children of different ages to support emotional regulation.


Accommodate and manage pets/animals

Many families arrive at evacuation centres with much-loved pets and farm animals. In some cases, when evacuation centres do not allow animals, families may choose to stay in their car parked nearby so that they can be with their animals but still access provisions and support in the centre.

It is important to be aware that families may put themselves at risk to save or protect their pets and farm animals (Taylor et al, 2015).  Also consider that the safety and care of these animals will benefit children’s mental health and ease their stress.

Where possible, plan facilities to accommodate animals and offer animal food and equipment to keep animals calm and secure. Provide families with regular updates on their animals if they are being kept in a different location to the evacuation centre. This is an important part of supporting families with pets, and those without. Parents who have had to use evacuation centres have expressed concerns about how to protect their young children from harm by dogs and other animals (Gribble et al., 2023).

Child-friendly spaces in evacuation centres

Access to child-friendly spaces in evacuation centres can help to protect children from physical harm and psychological distress. A child-friendly space is a protected environment where children over three years of age can engage in age-appropriate activities, such as storytelling sessions, art and craft activities or interactive games, under the supervision of trained staff and volunteers. Opportunities to safely express their feelings and concerns through play, art and engagement with calm adults supports children’s sense of normalcy and distraction and can reduce their distress and anxiety.

For instance, Children’s Health Queensland has developed disaster resilience resources that can be used in a child-friendly space. Their Birdie’s Tree storybooks talk about going to an emergency shelter and helping each other through different types of disasters; there are also puppets you can use to bring the stories to life, and an activity book with colouring-in pages and games.

Child-friendly spaces can also benefit the wellbeing of parents. They can provide some respite and time to focus on the parent’s own emotional needs, or a chance to take care of pressing matters while their children are occupied in a safe place. That said, if children or their parents are reluctant to be separated, encourage parents to stay with their children until they are comfortable to spend time alone in a child-friendly area.

Child-friendly spaces in evacuation centres also offer an opportunity to provide psychosocial support amid the chaos of a disaster, or link families to further support. This could include:

  • providing psychological first aid
  • offering reassurance and information to parents about connecting with and supporting their children
  • offering families advice on what support services may be available after the disaster.

Ways to provide psychosocial support to families in evacuation centres are explored in the next section of this paper (‘Practice strategies for supporting the wellbeing of infants, children and families in evacuation centres’).

Despite increasing advocacy for child-friendly spaces and implementation in some disaster responses in Australia, such spaces are still not yet routinely considered in emergency management planning. Where an unpredictable and rapidly unfolding disaster is taking place – particularly in a remote location – it is worth remembering that many practitioners, such as educators, childcare workers and healthcare professionals have knowledge and skills to operate child-friendly spaces. Local governments and community members, who bring a deep understanding of local dynamics, facilities and existing child-focused services, also play a key role in creating and supporting child-friendly spaces.

For more information about child-friendly spaces, check out the following resources:

Practice strategies for supporting the wellbeing of infants, children and families in evacuation centres

Evacuation centres aren’t just about keeping people physically safe in an unfolding disaster. They should be planned and managed to protect and promote children and families’ psychological safety and minimise the adverse impacts of a disaster experience.

Consider the following practice strategies for delivering practical and psychosocial support to children and families in an evacuation centre:

Build a supported team

  • Build an evacuation centre team that includes people with the remit and capabilities to provide psychosocial support to children and families, and link them to sources of ongoing support where necessary.
  • Ensure centre staff and volunteers include those with the training and ability to engage with children and families, drawing where possible on local practitioners, services and community members who have existing relationships with local children (e.g. educators, child and family health care workers, family support workers and community service volunteers). These individuals and organisations can play a role in creating and offering child-friendly spaces that can support children’s mental health (as described in the previous section on child friendly spaces in evacuation centres).
  • If possible, assign trained volunteers as child and family liaisons to help and support families. These volunteers can help families navigate the evacuation centre, access resources and address any concerns or needs they may have.
  • Provide evacuation centre workers with simple information sheets that reinforce the needs of infants and children and ways to support them during a disaster. As part of your preparedness activities, you might like to use this paper to develop information sheets relevant to your context.
  • Prioritise the wellbeing of evacuation centre practitioners, staff and volunteers to ensure they remain able to support infants, children and families.

Provide information and guidance to support parents

  • Ensure signage, announcements and written materials are easy to understand and accessible to children, as well as adults.
  • Provide information about what’s available in the evacuation centre to support families, and what parents and other adults can do to support the wellbeing of infants and children. Make simple information sheets readily available for families, reinforcing the needs and typical reactions of infants and children after a disaster and the strategies to support them.
  • Consider the cultural and linguistic makeup of your community and where possible, ensure key information and communications are available in multiple languages.
  • Provide simple instructions for parents and/or demonstrate how to talk with their children about what’s happening in a way that matches their child’s needs and provides reassurance. Encourage parents to check their own feelings before they start any conversation, let children lead the conversation, reassure them that it’s OK to talk about their feelings, and provide honest, simple and age-appropriate information.

Encourage parents to look after their own wellbeing and the wellbeing of their family

  • Understand that the family is an interconnected system that directly influences an infant’s or child’s mental health outcomes. Each family member, including parents, may have different needs, reactions and coping strategies in response to the disaster.
  • The responsibility of managing their children’s needs can make it difficult for parents to seek or access help for themselves. Acknowledge this while reminding parents they can help their children by focusing on their own physical health and wellbeing and managing their emotions and reactions. Consider practical ways to support parents to do this – for example, by distributing water and always having food available, or offering to supervise children while a solo parent uses the toilet.
  • People show signs of distress in different ways after a potentially traumatic experience. Remain open and responsive to families’ experiences and avoid making assumptions that parents and children are OK without checking in first.
  • Parents should also be reminded that their children’s reactions can be influenced by what they hear or experience while in the evacuation centre. Ensure they are aware of and can avoid areas of an evacuation centre where children could witness distressing sights or sounds (e.g. where injured people are being treated). While it’s important that parents and adults discuss their feelings and share their experiences to help their own healing process, encourage them to have those conversations away from children.
  • Help families to stay together by allowing families to check-in together, having a designated area for families with dependent children, and encouraging families to attend briefing together. This supports security, promotes mutual support and strengthens the protective factors for children’s mental health in chaotic circumstances.
  • Remain alert to (and plan for) the possibility that children will become separated from their parents in a busy evacuation centre, or may arrive at the centre without their parents. If this does happen, reuniting the child with their family must be a priority, to minimise the risks to their physical and mental wellbeing. This resource from the Victorian Government offers a guide to including and engaging with children and young people in your emergency plan.


Having to evacuate their home (and spending time in an evacuation centre, if necessary) can significantly impact the mental health and potential recovery of infants, children and families. However, there are many strategies that practitioners involved in planning and managing evacuation processes and centres can implement to minimise these impacts.

This paper has outlined various strategies that practitioners involved in planning and managing evacuation processes and centres can implement that will mitigate post-disaster adversity for families. Child centred, family-focused evacuation practices and evacuation centres that have facilities such as child friendly spaces and provisions families with infants and children need, will reduce the risks of physical and psychological harms both during and after a disaster. Practical and psychosocial support for parents reduces their burdens and distress, which bolsters their capacity to provide responsive and nurturing care to their children – the foundation of supporting children’s mental health.


This practice guidance draws on research, practice insights and the lived experience of our child and family partners. We would like to thank the professionals and families who played an integral role in shaping this resource.


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Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience. (2023). Evacuation Planning Handbook. AIDR.

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