An estimated 78 million newborns have a higher risk of death each year from not drinking their mother’s milk within the first hours of being born, according to the United Nations.
A new report – jointly published on Monday by the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF, the UN children’s agency, to coincide with the beginning of World Breastfeeding Week– observed mothers in 76 low and middle-income countries.
It found that only two out of five babies are breastfed immediately after being born. It also said that while instant breastfeeding is very common in East and Southern Africa, that is not the case in East Asia and the Pacific, where less than a third of newborns get to drink their mother’s milk soon after being born.
“When it comes to the start of breastfeeding, timing is everything. In many countries, it can even be a matter of life or death,” said Henrietta Fore, executive director of UNICEF.
“Each year, millions of newborns miss out on the benefits of early breastfeeding and the reasons – all too often – are things we can change. Mothers simply don’t receive enough support to breastfeed within those crucial minutes after birth, even from medical personnel at health facilities,” she said.
Earlier studies cited in the report showed that delaying breastfeeding between two and 23 hours increases an infant’s risk of dying by 33 percent. Among newborns who started breastfeeding a day or more after birth, the risk was more than twice as high.
The report suggests several reasons why many babies are not breastfed immediately, including the practice of throwing away the mother’s first milk and feeding newborns sugar water or infant formula.
Colostrum, the first milk produced by mothers, is sometimes called the baby’s “first vaccine” because it is high in nutrients and antibodies.
“Breastfeeding gives children the best possible start in life,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of WHO.
“We must urgently scale up support to mothers – be it from family members, healthcare workers, employers and governments, so they can give their children the start they deserve,” he said.
Benefits of breastfeeding
A rise in elective caesarean sections in many countries and the gaps in the quality of postnatal medical care are also contributing to a delay in breastfeeding, according to the report.
In Egypt, caesarean section rates more than doubled between 2005 and 2014, rising from 20 to 52 percent. In the same period, the rates of early initiation of breastfeeding decreased from 40 to 27 percent.
In the report, UNICEF and WHO urge governments to adopt strong legal measures to restrict the marketing of infant formula and other breastmilk substitutes.
In July, the United States drew criticism for allegedly putting pressure on other members of the World Health Assembly, the WHO’s decision-making body, to withdraw their support from a WHO resolution promoting breastfeeding. US officials have denied the claims.
Breastfeeding Week aims to inform people about the benefits of breastfeeding, which include strengthening the baby’s immune system and providing nutrition for healthy growth.
It can also reduce the mother’s chances of getting diabetes and some cancers.
UNICEF recommend that babies should be exclusively breastfed up to an age of six months, after which they can begin incorporating some food and other liquid into their diet alongside breastfeeding.