It’s called magic milk for a reason. A new report by Save the Children estimates that 830,000 babies worldwide could be saved annually if mothers breastfed them during the “power hour” immediately after birth. During that first feeding, newborns start receiving colostrum, the thick, highly concentrated milk that kick-starts babies’ immune system.
Mothers who breastfeed right after birth are also more likely to nurse exclusively for the first six months, which is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Doing so (without giving baby any additional foods or liquids except vitamins, rehydration salts and medicine when necessary) protects tots against major childhood diseases and lowers the risk of malnutrition, which is an underlying cause in 1 in 3 child deaths globally.
Despite the benefits, breastfeeding rates have hovered below 40 percent worldwide for two decades. In the United States, 75 percent of new moms tried breastfeeding in 2008 (the most recent year for which figures are available). That’s up from 70 percent in 2000.
However, breastfeeding in the United States is still be an uphill battle for many women, experts says. American moms have the shortest protected maternity leave of all industrialized nations. In the United States, women have the option to take up to 12 weeks unpaid. The U.N. International Labour Organization recommends 18 weeks maternity leave at two-thirds pay. (Time to move to Sweden? Parents there get 480 days of parental leave to be used anytime before the child turns 8.)
Other barriers: cultural and community pressure to skip nursing, as well as health worker shortages. Women who have a skilled birth attendant present are twice as likely to nurse in the first hour – yet one-third of deliveries don’t have one, according to Save The Children. The report also cites aggressive marketing of breastmilk alternatives directly to moms and the health workers assisting them.
“Women everywhere should have all the support and information they need to make the best choices for themselves and for the health and survival of their children," says Carolyn Miles, president and CEO of Save the Children. “At the same time, all of us can do something to help save hundreds of thousands of babies from needless death. It's a matter of raising our voices for these children.”