One out of every two newborns are not given breast milk within the first hour of birth, depriving them of essential disease-preventing nutrients and antibodies, according to UNICEF.
“Making babies wait too long for the first critical contact with their mother outside the womb decreases the newborn’s chances of survival, limits milk supply and reduces the chances of exclusive breastfeeding,” says France Bégin, UNICEF Senior Nutrition Adviser. “If all babies are fed nothing but breastmilk from the moment they are born until they are six months old, over 800,000 lives would be saved every year.”
Bégin adds that “breastmilk is a baby’s first vaccine” and “early breastfeeding can make the difference between life and death.”
Despite the known benefits of early breastfeeding, progress to promote it around the globe has been slow, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where mortality rates for children under age 5 are the highest worldwide, as Fox News reported.
Progress has been faster in South Asia, where rates of early breastfeeding have tripled over the past 15 years (from 16 percent to 45 percent). But that still leaves 21 million newborns who wait too long before being breastfed.
UNICEF points out that the longer nursing is delayed, the higher the risk of death in the first month of life. Postponing breastfeeding by 2 to 23 hours after birth increases the risk of dying in the first 28 days by 40 percent, while postponing it by 24 hours or more increases that risk to 80 percent.
Even when a trained doctor, nurse of midwife is present, babies aren’t being promptly breastfed. In fact, according to UNICEF, in the Middle East, North Africa and in South Asia, women who deliver with a skilled birth attendant are less likely to initiate breastfeeding in the first hour of life, compared to women who deliver with unskilled attendants or relatives.
What’s more, in many countries UNICEF says it is customary to feed a baby infant formula, cow's milk or sugar water in its first three days. Unfortunately, when babies are given these less nutritious alternatives to breastmilk, they breastfeed less often, which makes it harder for mothers to start and continue breastfeeding.
The bottom line: Any amount of breastmilk reduces a child’s risk of death. Babies who receive no breastmilk at all are seven times more likely to die from infections than those who receive at least some breastmilk in their first six months of life.