Some 77 million newborns – or one in two globally – are not breastfed within an hour of birth, depriving them of the essential nutrients, antibodies and skin-to-skin contact with their mother that protect them from disease and death, UNICEF said.
In the Philippines, the National Demographic Health Survey of 2013 shows only about half of children are breastfed within the first hour of birth. Meanwhile, the Food and Nutrition Research Institute says only 28 percent of children aged five months remain exclusively breastfed.
“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,” said France Bégin, UNICEF Senior Nutrition adviser. “If all babies are fed nothing but breast milk from the moment they are born until they are six months old, over 800,000 lives would be saved every year.”
The longer breastfeeding is delayed, the higher the risk of death in the first month of life. Delaying breastfeeding by two to 23 hours after birth increases the risk of dying in the first 28 days of life by 40 percent. Delaying it by 24 hours or more increases that risk to 80 percent.
Progress in getting more newborns breastfed within the first hour of life has been slow over the past 15 years, UNICEF data show. Across South Asia, where rates of early breastfeeding initiation tripled in 15 years – from 16 percent in 2000 to 45 percent in 2015 – the increase is far from enough: 21 million newborns still wait too long before they are breastfed.
“Breastfeeding has the single largest potential impact on child mortality of any preventive intervention. It is a cornerstone of child survival, health and development – providing the best nutrition, protecting against life-threatening diseases, and against obesity and non-communicable diseases. Breastfeeding also remains a cornerstone in the strategy to reduce stunting and other forms of malnutrition,” said UNICEF Philippines Representative Lotta Sylwander.
One of the recommended evidence-based actions to improve breastfeeding rates is to support paid maternity leave and to encourage and support women to breastfeed in the workplace. The Expanded Breastfeeding Act (RA 10028 of 2009) requires the provision of workplace breastfeeding support for working women so that they can continue to breastfeed their children even when they go back to work.
Sylwander added that UNICEF continues to work with government and civil society partners to strengthen mechanisms to improve implementation of the existing laws and push for the formulation of policies that further protect, support and promote breastfeeding; to enable more mothers and children to reap its benefits.
“Newborns accounting for nearly half of all deaths of children under five, early breastfeeding can make the difference between life and death,” Bégin added. UNICEF analyses show women do not get the help they need to start breastfeeding immediately after birth even when a doctor, nurse or midwife assists their delivery.
Feeding babies other liquids or foods is another reason early breastfeeding is delayed. In many countries, it is customary to feed a baby infant formula, cow’s milk or sugar water in the first three days of life. Almost half of all newborns are fed these liquids. When babies are given less nutritious alternatives to breast milk and breastfed less often, it makes it harder for mothers to start and continue breastfeeding.
Globally, only 43 percent of infants under six months old are exclusively breastfed. Babies who are not breastfed at all are 14 times more likely to die than those who are fed only breast milk.
But any amount of breast milk reduces a child’s risk of death. Babies who received no breast milk at all are seven times more likely to die from infections than those who received at least some breast milk in their first six months of life.
“Much has to be done to improve the support we provide to breastfeeding mothers – in changing behaviors and making breastfeeding the norm. Strong legislation and policies have a crucial role, too. They lay the needed framework for action and remove system bottlenecks to essential service delivery,” Sylwander concluded.