As many as 77 million newborn babies in the world are not breastfed by their mothers within the first hour of their birth, a new report by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) says. This increases the children's risk to early death as they are deprived of the vital antibodies and nutrients they need.
According to the UN agency, newborns that are not nourished through breastfeeding by their mothers within two to 23 hours after their birth are 40 percent more likely to die within the first 28 days of their life. This is further increased up to 80 percent if the child is not given breastmilk from his or her mom within 24 hours or longer.
France Bégin, senior nutrition adviser to UNICEF, explained that making newborns wait too long for their first contact with their mother following their birth severely reduces the babies' survival chances. It also limits their milk supply and reduces their chance of experiencing exclusive breastfeeding.
Bégin said that if all newborns are fed with breastmilk exclusively from the moment they are born up to the first six months of their lives, it could help save the lives of as many as 800,000 babies every year.
Despite this, many mothers around the world fail to appreciate the benefits of breastfeeding to the health and well-being of their babies. Based on data from UNICEF from the past 15 years, many newborns are still left without receiving breastmilk from their mothers within the first hour of their life.
This problem can be seen in sub-Saharan Africa, a region known for some of the highest mortality rates in the world for children below 5 years old. While early breastfeeding rates in East and Southern Africa have increased by as much 10 percent within the past 15 years, they have remained largely unchanged in Central and West Africa.
Early breastfeeding rates in South Asia have also significantly increased in the past few years, rising to 45 percent in 2015 from the measly 16 percent in 2000. However, the jump in breastfeeding rates is still not enough as 21 million newborn babies in the region are still left to wait far too long to receive breastmilk from their mothers.
Not Enough Care For Mothers After Giving Birth
In UNICEF's report, some mothers are not given enough support to breastfeed their children despite the presence of professional care providers such as doctors or nurses following delivery.
In countries in North Africa, South Asia and the Middle East, women who give birth with the help of a skilled attendant are shown to be less likely to begin breastfeeding within the first hour of their child's life compared to those who give birth with relatives or unskilled attendants.
Early breastfeeding is also delayed by choosing to feed newborns with other liquids or food. In many countries, mothers are more inclined to feed their child with infant formula, sugar water, or milk from cows within the first three days of life.
UNICEF estimates that as many as half of all newborn babies in the world are fed with less nutritious alternatives to their mother's milk. In fact, only 43 percent of infants below six months old globally are given breastmilk by their mothers exclusively.
The UN agency warned that infants that do not experience breastfeeding at all are 14 times more likely to die early than those who are given only breastmilk to feed on. They are also seven times more likely to die of severe infections than newborns fed with even a small amount of breastmilk within the first six months of their life.
"Breastmilk is a baby's first vaccine, the first and best protection they have against illness and disease," Bégin pointed out.
"With newborns accounting for nearly half of all deaths of children under five, early breastfeeding can make the difference between life and death."