UNICEF: Delayed Breastfeeding Increases Risk of Newborn Death Globally

You'll never believe how dangerous this issue is—or how many infants are affected. 

UNICEF Breastfeeding UNICEF/UNI199599/Mawa

You know breastfeeding is incredibly protective for your baby, but in parts of the world where the infant mortality rate is relatively high, it could actually save lives.

UNICEF reports that one in two babies worldwide are not breastfed within the recommended first two hours of birth, and not getting the nutrients they need increases their chance of death by a whopping 80%. This news—and the realization that something needs to change on a global level—comes just in time for World Breastfeeding Week (August 1-7).

“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,” France Bégin, UNICEF Senior Nutrition Adviser, said in a news release. “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.”

According to UNICEF's data, we haven't seen much progress in getting moms to breastfeed right away over the last 15 years. The group breaks down the numbers geographically: Early breastfeeding rates in certain parts of Sub-Saharan Africa (where mortality rates for children under five are the highest worldwide), have only seen an increase of ten percentage points since 2000, and rates in West and Central Africa have not increased at all. Early breastfeeding rates in Southeast Asia tripled but this still isn't enough, with 21 million infants not nursed within the appropriate time frame.

The root of the problem may lie in the hands of healthcare practitioners. UNICEF's analysis of the situation indicates that women might not be given the help or guidance they need to breastfeed properly. Cultural rites of passage may play a role as well: The news release makes note of the idea that giving a baby something else to eat or drink can often delay breastfeeding and in some parts of the world, it's customary to feed a baby formula, cow's milk or sugar water during their first few days. 

UNICEF points out that the sooner an infant is breastfed, the better. Here's a startling statistic: If a mother delays breastfeeding by 2 to 23 hours after birth, her child's chance of dying within the first 28 days of life increases by 40 percent. Additionally, only 43 percent of babies worldwide are breastfed exclusively for the first six months. While this is the gold standard of protection, UNICEF points out that any amount of breast milk can slash a child's risk of death, as babies who don't consume any breast milk are seven times more likely to die from infections.

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