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World Breastfeeding Week 2007: An early start on breast milk saves infants’ lives

© UNICEF/HQ06-0951/Noorani
A woman breastfeeds her infant in Bangladesh’s flood-prone Ajmeriganj Sub-district, where access to child health and nutrition services is limited.

By Kun Li

NEW YORK, USA, 1 August 2007 – The results of a study conducted in Ghana show that breastfeeding babies as early as within the first hour of birth can save hundreds of thousands of infants’ lives in developing countries.

Published in the journal Pediatrics, the study indicates that 16 per cent of neonatal deaths can be prevented by breastfeeding from day one, rising to 22 per cent if breastfeeding begins within one hour of birth.

 “The very first milk mothers secrete immediately after birth contains a great deal of substance, which no infant formula can provide,” explained UNICEF Chief of Nutrition Werner Schultink. “It contains a specific amount of carbohydrates, fats and proteins – ideal for the newborn. The protective factor of the breast milk is so unique, it’s basically the first immunization the child gets in his or her life.”

Early initiation of breastfeeding is the theme of this year’s World Breastfeeding Week, which begins today. The week is observed in over 120 countries by UNICEF and its partners, including the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action and the World Health Organization.

Reaching mothers where they live

In sub-Saharan Africa, the region with the world’s highest infant mortality, around 10 per cent of all babies die in the first year of life, and most neonatal deaths occur at home. Though the rate of exclusive breastfeeding until the age of six months has more than doubled there since 1990 – up to 30 per cent – most children in the region still do not benefit from the practice and are therefore more vulnerable to killer diseases.

© UNICEF/HQ06-2407/Markisz
An indigenous Wayuu woman nurses her infant son while listening to a discussion on the benefits of breastfeeding, in Maracaibo, Venezuela.

“More than one-third of child deaths occur during the first fragile month of life,” said UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman. “Early breastfeeding provides critical nutrients, protects infants against deadly diseases and fosters growth and development.

“It is critical to reach women in their homes and communities,” stressed Ms. Veneman.

Fear of HIV transmission

Despite all the proven benefits of breast milk, there remain many factors that prevent women from breastfeeding. These include cultural and traditional beliefs, the aggressive marketing of infant formula, and fear of mother-to-child transmission of HIV.

For HIV-positive mothers with limited access to clean water and sanitation, the choice of whether to breastfeed can be a painful dilemma. New mothers must weigh the risk of passing on the infection to their infants against the risk of denying them breast milk. During the first two months of life, a bottle-fed baby is nearly six times more likely to die from diarrhoeal, respiratory or other infections than a breastfed child – mostly because contaminated water is used in mixing the formula.

© UNICEF/HQ05-2131/Pirozzi
A woman breastfeeds her newborn at a local health centre in the north-eastern Province Orientale, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“The research has shown that the risk of a child becoming infected with HIV is much smaller if the mother breastfeeds the child exclusively, compared to when she gives the child a mixture of breast milk and other fluids and foods,” said Mr. Schultink.

Global promotion of breastfeeding

In some countries, evolving birth and delivery practices get in the way of early breastfeeding. In Egypt, for example, many babies are now being delivered in hospitals without immediate access to their mothers after birth.

As a result, only 43 per cent of Egyptian babies were breastfed within one hour of birth in 2005, a marked reduction from the 2000 figure of 57 per cent.

Working with partners, governments and communities, UNICEF continues to promote breastfeeding as the best way to provide nutrition for a baby’s first six months. Through support for national infant feeding legislation, improved ante- and post-natal care, and critical nutrition education for mothers, the organization is helping to empower women globally to begin breastfeeding immediately after their children are born.

“If we were to breastfeed all children exclusively for the first six months, we could possibly save more than 1 million child lives every year,” said Mr. Schultink.




31 July 2007:
UNICEF correspondent Kun Li reports on the benefits of initiating breastfeeding promptly after birth, the theme of this year’s World Breastfeeding Week.
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World Breastfeeding Week PSA

View 'Baby Bubbly', a public service announcement produced by Kantana Animation Company in Thailand, with support from UNICEF’s East Asia and Pacific Regional Office and WHO’s Western Pacific Regional Office, to highlight the power of breastfeeding.
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