77 million newborns globally not breastfed within first hour of life – UNICEF

77 million newborns globally not breastfed within first hour of life – UNICEF

Delayed breastfeeding increases risk of newborn deaths by up to 80 per cent

Some 77 million new-borns – or 1 in 2 – are not put to the breast 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, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said.

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“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 breastmilk from the moment they are born until they are six months old, over 800,000 lives would be saved every year.”


In Uganda, 37 per cent of mothers do not exclusively breastfeed their babies in the first 6 months, thereby increasing the risk of illness of these infants, compromise their growth and also raise the risk of death or disability.

Putting the baby on the breast immediately after birth provides the best start for the baby and saves life. The thick yellowish milk also known as colostrum is very healthy and helps protect the baby from illness.

Progress in getting more new-borns breastfed within the first hour of life has been slow over the past 15 years, UNICEF data show. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, where under five mortality rates are the highest worldwide, early breastfeeding rates increased by just 10 percentage points since 2000 in East and Southern Africa but have remained unchanged in West and Central Africa.

Even in South Asia, where rates of early breastfeeding initiation tripled in 15 years – from 16 per cent in 2000 to 45 per cent in 2015 – the increase is far from enough: 21 million new-borns still wait too long before they are breastfed.

The longer breastfeeding is delayed, the higher the risk of death in the first month of life. Delaying breastfeeding by 2-23 hours after birth increases the risk of dying in the first 28 days of life by 40 per cent. Delaying it by 24 hours or more increases that risk to 80 per cent.


In Uganda, the Demographic Health Survey indicates that 27 new-borns die in the first 28 days, 20 die in the first week and 13 die in the first 24 hours.

“Breast milk is a baby’s first vaccine, the first and best protection they have against illness and disease,” said France Bégin. “With newborns accounting for nearly half of all deaths of children under five, early breastfeeding can make the difference between life and death.”

UNICEF analyses show that women are not getting the help they need to start breastfeeding immediately after birth even when a doctor, nurse of midwife is assisting their delivery. In the Middle East, North Africa and in South Asia, for example, women who deliver with a skilled birth attendant are less likely to initiate breastfeeding in the first hour of life, compared to women who deliver with unskilled attendants or relatives.

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, they breastfeed less often, making it harder for mothers to start and continue breastfeeding.

Maternal nutrition during breastfeeding is also very critical. Breastfeeding mothers need to eat regular nutritious meals and sometimes two extra meals with foods rich in iron, vitamin A and folic acid, beans, grains, green vegetables and fruits, milk, eggs, fish, chicken, meat in order to have sufficient breast milk for their babies. Breastfeeding mothers should also get more rest.

Globally, only 43 per cent 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.

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