Breastfeeding delay after birth puts babies at risk, claims major report
WHO and Unicef recommend children should be breastfed within an hour of being born
Almost 60 per cent of babies around the world are not breastfed within the first hour after their birth, putting them at risk of sickness and even death, a new report has revealed.
Current guidelines from the World Health Organization (WHO) and Unicef recommend babies should be breastfed within an hour of their birth and fed only by breastfeeding until they are six months old.
Breastfeeding offers both mothers and babies a host of benefits. It reduces the risk of breast cancer in women, while the first breast milk contains nutrients and antibodies – important for keeping the child safe against disease. It is also linked to a lower risk of future obesity in children, while the skin-to-skin contact allows the infant to come into contact with microbes from the mother that help to develop their immune system.
The WHO and Unicef’s new report stresses that delays in breastfeeding can endanger babies. “When breastfeeding is delayed after birth, the consequences can be life-threatening – and the longer newborns are left waiting, the greater the risk,” the authors write. “Improving breastfeeding practices could save the lives of more than 800,000 children under five every year, the vast majority of whom are under six months of age.”
The team behind the report highlight previous research that found that a delay in breastfeeding is linked to an increased risk of infant death, with those first breastfed between two and 23 hours after birth facing a 30 per cent higher risk of death within their first 28 days than those breastfed within the first hour after birth.
Babies breastfed for the first time at 24 hours after birth had twice the risk of death of those breastfed within their first hour.
The report, which is based on Unicef data from 76 countries and does not include figures for North America, Australia, New Zealand or western Europe, found that in 2017 about 78 million babies were not breastfed within the first hour after birth.
It also notes that the proportion of babies breastfed immediately after birth varied greatly from country to country: in countries in eastern and southern Africa almost two-thirds of babies are put to the breast within their first hour, compared to just under one-third in east Asia and the Pacific.
While the report acknowledges that some women cannot breastfeed, it says most women can do so if given the right support.
In 2015, the National Perinatal Reporting System recorded that 58 per cent of babies in the Republic of Ireland were receiving breastmilk on discharge from hospital. The HSE recorded that 35 per cent of babies were receiving some breastmilk at three months. At the same time, the Northern Ireland Child Health System recorded that 46 per cent of babies were receiving breastmilk on discharge from hospital, with 21 per cent of babies receiving some breastmilk at three months.
The team behind the new report say a number of factors underpin whether babies are breastfed soon after birth. They say babies born by caesarean sections are less likely to be breastfed within their first hour, and that skilled health providers at births need better training so they encourage and support breastfeeding. The authors also say cultural practices that involve feeding the baby with honey or other foods can delay breastfeeding.
The report also sets out a number of recommendations to increase early initiation of breastfeeding, including encouraging community networks to promote breastfeeding, improving access to skilled breastfeeding counsellors and cracking down on the marketing of breast milk substitutes, including formula.
“Initiating breastfeeding within the first hour of life is no easy feat: mothers cannot be expected to do it alone,” the authors write. “The appropriate care of both newborn and mother in the moments after birth is critical to ensuring that breastfeeding not only begins but continues successfully.”