According to experts, breastfeeding is the best way to provide infants with the nutrients they need.
The World Health Organisation (WHO), therefore, recommends exclusive breastfeeding starting within an hour after birth until a baby is six months old, after which nutritious complementary foods should be added while continuing to breastfeed for up to two years or beyond.
Despite the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding for six months, it is estimated that 78 million babies across the world or three in five babies are not breastfed in the first hour of life.
This is according to a joint report issued by the WHO and the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) last Tuesday.
Breastfeeding has many benefits for the infant and mother and chief among these is protection against gastrointestinal infections and malnutrition, which according to the report are observed not only in developing but also industrialised countries.
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It also notes that skin-to-skin contact, along with suckling of the breast, stimulates the mother’s production of breastmilk, including colostrum, also called the baby’s ‘first vaccine’, which is extremely rich in nutrients and antibodies.
As the world marks World Breastfeeding Day from August 1 to 7, the report says breastfeeding within an hour after birth is critical for saving newborn lives and that not breastfeeding them within the first hour puts children at higher risk of death and disease and makes them less likely to continue breastfeeding.
World Breastfeeding Week is celebrated every year to encourage breastfeeding and improve the health of babies around the world.
The WHO and UNICEF in April this year issued a 10-step guidance to increase support for breastfeeding in health facilities that provide maternity and newborn services, saying breastfeeding all babies for the first two years will save the lives of more than 820,000 children under age five, globally, annually.
The 10 Steps to Successful Breastfeeding underpin the Baby-friendly Hospital Initiative, which both organisations launched in 1991. The practical guidance encourages new mothers to breastfeed and informs health workers about how best to support breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding Day commemorates the Innocenti Declaration signed in August 1990 by government policy makers, WHO, UNICEF and other organisations to protect, promote and support breastfeeding.
“When it comes to the start of breastfeeding, timing is everything. In many countries, it can even be a matter of life or death,” says the UNICEF Executive Director, Ms Henrietta H. Fore.
“Breastfeeding gives children the best possible start in life,” says the WHO Director General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
“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 added.
‘Capture the Moment’, which analyses data from 76 countries, finds that despite the importance of early initiation of breastfeeding, too many newborns are left waiting too long for different reasons.
Some of these reasons are feeding newborns food or drinks, common traditional practices such as discarding colostrum, an elder feeding the baby with honey, or health professionals giving the newborn a specific liquid such as sugar water or infant formula, which according to the report delayed a newborn’s first critical contact with his or her mother.
According to the WHO/UNICEF report, the presence of a skilled birth attendant does not seem to affect rates of early breastfeeding. It identified that across 58 countries between 2005 and 2017, deliveries at health institutions grew by 18 per cent, while early initiation rates increased by six per cent.
In many cases, it says babies were separated from their mothers immediately after birth, and guidance from health workers is limited.
The report urges governments, donors and other decision makers to adopt strong legal measures to restrict the marketing of infant formula and other breastmilk substitutes.
A WHO and UNICEF-led Global Breastfeeding Collective to rally political, legal, financial and public support for breastfeeding also released the 2018 Global Breastfeeding Scorecard and encouraged countries to advance policies and programmes that help all mothers to start breastfeeding in the first hour of their child’s life and to continue for as long as they want.