According to a new report from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), some 77 million of the world’s newborns – or almost half of them – are not being put to the mother’s breast for feeding during their first hour after birth.
This delay deprives the infant of many vital antibodies and nutrients that could protect them from various diseases and infections. According to the UNICEF, the baby is exposed to a risk of death higher by 40 percent if breastfeeding is postponed by two to 23 hours after birth.
Delaying the first breastfeeding session by more than 24 hours increases the risk of infant mortality to 80 percent. “Early breastfeeding can make the difference between life and death,” said France Bégin, UNICEF Senior Nutrition Adviser.
She added in a press release that feeding all the babies in the world with nothing but breastmilk from the day they are born until they are six months old would save more than 800,000 lives each year.
Breastmilk serves as the baby’s first immunizer, the best protection they can get from infection and illness. It gives the infant antibodies and essential nutrients, while skin-to-skin contact with the mother provides an extra layer of immunity.
While delaying this vital first contact between the newborn and the mother decreases the baby’s chances of survival, the agency has also warned that it limits the mother’s milk supply and reduces the odds of establishing exclusive breastfeeding.
UNICEF’s report has come in the wake of the World Breastfeeding Week, which is commemorated every year from 1 to 7 August. During this week, more than 170 countries promote infant nutrition and awareness about the importance of breastfeeding.
However, one of the things that have seen slow progress over the past 15 years is making sure that more newborns are breastfed within the first hour since birth. The situation is particularly bad in sub-Saharan Africa, where the mortality rates of children under five years old are the highest worldwide.
UNICEF found that infants who are not breastfed at all are roughly 14 times more prone to childhood death than those who are fed only breastmilk until they are 6 months old. But the risk of death is reduced by any amount of breastmilk.