The lives of 95 babies could be saved every hour – 830,000 a year – if new mothers around the world breast-fed immediately after giving birth, Save the Children says.
In a new report, Superfood for Babies, the charity says that if babies receive colostrum – the mother’s first milk – within an hour of birth, it will kick start the child’s immune system, making them three times more likely to survive. If the mother continues feeding for the next six months, then a child growing up in the developing world is up to 15 times less likely to die from killer diseases like pneumonia and diarrhoea.
Save the Children says the enormous progress already made in reducing child mortality could be accelerated if more mums were encouraged to breastfeed.
Despite the startling statistics, global breastfeeding rates are stalling and actually declining across East Asia and in some of Africa’s most populous countries like Ethiopia and Nigeria. The prevalence of traditional practices as well as a severe shortage of health workers and examples of inappropriate marketing techniques by some baby milk substitute companies, have contributed to this.
Save the Children Chief Executive Justin Forsyth said, “Despite the benefits of breastfeeding being widely known in the developed world, and it being a free, natural way to protect a newborn baby, too little attention is being paid to help mums breastfeed in poorer countries.”
The charity says four key factors are to blame:
A lack of empowerment and education for women which means that some harmful traditional practises, which undermine mums breastfeeding their babies, are still rife. Instead of live-saving colostrum, in some places, newborn babies are fed coffee, shea butter or ash in their first hour of life.
The severe shortages of midwives and of health workers in the developing world, which means that information on the benefits of breastfeeding is inadequate, and there is not enough support to help mums once they give birth.
Lack of adequate maternity legislation which makes breastfeeding and returning to work a challenge. In reality most mothers living in developing countries do not have access to any paid maternity leave.
Marketing practices by some breast milk substitute companies that can result in mothers believing that formula is the best way to feed their baby even if they are unable to afford it.
Superfood for Babies also highlights questionable marketing practices adopted by some breast milk substitute companies active in emerging markets. Asia is a lucrative new market for the industry which is already worth £16 billion and set to grow as whole by 31% by 2015. In East Asia and the Pacific, the number of breastfeeding mothers has fallen from 45% in 2006 to 29% in 2012.
New research by Save the Children in Asia found mothers who cited examples of marketing activity which violate the internationally agreed code for marketing of breast milk substitutes.
In Pakistan the charity worked with respected pollsters Gallup to survey new mothers and health workers finding that:
20% of health workers surveyed said they received branded gifts from representatives of breast milk substitute companies, including prescription pads, calendars, pens and note pads
11% of mothers surveyed said they had seen or read promotional literature about breast milk substitutes whilst at hospital or a clinic.
In a snapshot of the situation in China the charity also spoke to mothers finding that:
40% of mothers surveyed reported being given formula samples by some breast milk substitute’s company representatives or health workers. Of this 60% were said to be provided by baby food company representatives, and over 30% were said to be given by health workers.
40% of mothers surveyed said they had been contacted directly by representatives of breast milk substitutes companies; half of them had been contacted in hospitals and over one-third by phone.
The charity says women who give birth with the help of skilled birth attendants are twice as likely to breastfeed in the first crucial hour and that plugging a critical gap of 3.5 million health workers would dramatically increase the number of breastfeeding mums.
Mr Forsyth continued: “If every baby was fed during the first hour of life – what we call the “power hour” – we estimate that up to 830,000 newborn deaths could be prevented every year; that’s 95 babies every hour. And if mums were helped to breastfeed for up to six months, many more children would be protected from killer diseases like pneumonia and diarrhoea. It is a matter of life and death.”
The charity says that stopping children from dying from preventable disease and hunger is possible in our lifetime but only if world leaders step up their fight with greater funding for malnutrition, and breastfeeding in particular.
Mr Forsyth added: “The world is at tipping point and we could be the generation to stop children dying from preventable disease and malnutrition. This year’s G8 – with the UK in the driving seat – is a once in a lifetime opportunity to focus effort on a final push to end hunger”