An estimated 78 million babies — or three in five — are not breastfed within the first hour of life, putting them at higher risk of death and disease and making them less likely to continue breastfeeding, say UNICEF and WHO in a new report. Most of these babies are born in low- and middle-income countries.
The report notes that newborns who breastfeed in the first hour of life are significantly more likely to survive. Even a delay of a few hours after birth could pose life-threatening consequences. Skin-to-skin contact along with suckling at the breast stimulate the mother’s production of breastmilk, including colostrum, also called the baby’s ‘first vaccine’, which is extremely rich in nutrients and antibodies.
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, including:
Feeding newborns food or drinks, including formula: Common practices, such as discarding colostrum, an elder feeding the baby honey or health professionals giving the newborn a specific liquid, such as sugar water or infant formula, delay a newborn’s first critical contact with his or her mother.
The rise in elective C-sections: In Egypt, caesarean section rates more than doubled between 2005 and 2014, increasing from 20% to 52%. During the same period, rates of early initiation of breastfeeding decreased from 40% to 27%. A study across 51 countries notes that early initiation rates are significantly lower among newborns delivered by caesarean section. In Egypt, only 19% of babies born by C-section were breastfed in the first hour after birth, compared to 39% of babies born by natural delivery.
Gaps in the quality of care provided to mothers and newborns: The presence of a skilled birth attendant does not seem to affect rates of early breastfeeding, according to the report. Across 58 countries between 2005 and 2017, deliveries at health institutions grew by 18 percentage points, while early initiation rates increased by 6 percentage points. In many cases, babies are separated from their mothers immediately after birth and guidance from health workers is limited.
Earlier studies, cited in the report, show that newborns who began breastfeeding between two and 23 hours after birth had a 33% greater risk of dying compared with those who began breastfeeding within one hour of birth. Among newborns who started breastfeeding a day or more after birth, the risk was more than twice as high.
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.