A newly released study has shown that breastfeeding babies from day one reduces the risk of neonatal deaths.
The study which was conducted in Ghana found that 16 per cent of neonatal deaths can be prevented by breastfeeding infants from day one, and the rate increases to 22 per cent if breastfeeding begins within one hour of birth.
The early initiation of breastfeeding is the theme of this year’s World Breastfeeding Week and has particular relevance in Sub-Saharan Africa, which has the highest infant mortality rates in the world.
This is an area where as many as 10 per cent of all babies die before the age of one and almost all neonatal deaths happen at home.
UNICEF Executive Director, Ann M. Veneman says more than one third of child deaths occur during the first fragile month of life and early breastfeeding provides critical nutrients which protect infants against deadly diseases and also fosters growth and development.
Efforts by many global and international agencies have seen the rate of exclusive breastfeeding until the age of six months more than double in the region since 1990 and it is now at 30 per cent.
However hundreds of thousands of children remain vulnerable to disease and death and UNICEF believes that exclusive breastfeeding to the age of six months could prevent the deaths of 1.3 million children under the age of five each year.
UNICEF says in general families in the developing world believe bottle feeding is better for the baby than breast milk even though breastfeeding is particularly protective for those babies born in towns and villages where water quality is unreliable and can make formula feeding unsafe.
Veneman says it is critical that women in their homes and communities receive this message.
The World Health Organization (WHO) says feeding colostrum in the first hour increases the likelihood babies will continue to be breastfed which gives them a head start in the "race against malnutrition".
The WHO says there are 170 million underweight children in the world and 3 million of them die every year.
Colostrum is a sticky yellow-white substance which comes from the mother's breast soon after birth, which is rich in antibodies and essential nutrients.
Many cultures however remain ignorant of its health benefits and it is often discarded.
Child development experts say giving newborns water or other liquids instead, denies them a "good start in life" and that breastfeeding benefits all children, not just those in developing countries, as it improves cognitive development and reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes.
World Breastfeeding Week (WBW) 2007 is encouraging breastfeeding in the first hour of life and their slogan for the year is "Breast Feeding the 1st Hour - Save One Million Babies".
The research is published in the journal Pediatrics.