A new study from UNICEF has found that an estimated 77 million newborns around the world miss out on the benefits of breastfeeding within the first hour of being born, and that encouraging immediate breastfeeding and skin-to-skin contact could help substantially reduce infant mortality rates. In fact, the UN agency suggests that infants whose mothers delay breastfeeding more than 24 hours after birth have an 80 percent higher risk of newborn death than those who are immediately breastfed.
“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,” said France Bégin, UNICEF Senior Nutrition Adviser. “If all babies are fed nothing but breastmilk from the moment they are born until they are six months old, over 800,000 lives would be saved every year.”
While the recommendations are valuable for all mothers, complications stemming from delayed breastfeeding are particularly seen in developing countries in Africa and Asia, where breastfeeding isn’t regularly encouraged. The study also found that mothers in the Middle East who give birth with the help of doctors, nurses, and midwives are actually less likely to breastfeed than women who give birth with assistance from unskilled attendants, or with relatives.
Part of the reason for that, according to World Health Organization spokesperson Fadela Chaib, is the myth existing in many countries that infant formula has the same benefits as breast milk. Emphasizing that breastmilk and formula should not be considered interchangeable, Chaib said, “It’s a lie. It’s not the same.”
“Breastmilk is a baby’s first vaccine, the first and best protection they have against illness and disease. With newborns accounting for nearly half of all deaths of children under five, early breastfeeding can make the difference between life and death.”
In fact, the UN feels so strongly about wanting to up rates of exclusive breastfeeding around the world, that in honor of World Breastfeeding Week — which begins August 1 — Chaib says that women should “absolutely” be encouraged to take and share so-called “brelfies,” (aka selfies mom take while breastfeeding their babies), according to Reuters.. Brelfies, she argues, are a great way to break down the enduring stigma of public breastfeeding, which can lead women to either wean their children sooner than they’d like to, or to avoid breastfeeding all together.
Of course, given that the UNICEF study looked at breastfeeding rates from a global standpoint, and the huge life-saving value of breastmilk in countries where infant mortality rates are very high, it didn’t mention the ongoing stigma that also occurs in many countries, including the U.S., on both sides of the feeding debate. Higher breastfeeding rates in developed countries are great for infant health, but as many mothers realize, it can also create a backlash against those who formula feed out of necessity — something Florida photographer Natalie McCain has tried to push back against. In a project called “No Mother Should Be Ashamed,” where she photographed mothers bottle feeding their children, McCain attempted to help ease some of the shame women can feel if they have been unable to breastfeed their children.
Of her project, McCain wrote:
“These mothers are sharing their stories on what led them to bottle feed and their feelings about it. There is so much judgement towards bottle feeding mothers and I want to help fight against it. No mother should be looked down on and we should lift each other up, rather than put others down for their choices.”
There’s no doubt that breastfeeding, especially early on, can have a huge effect on reducing infant mortality rates, and that all mothers should be supported and encouraged to feed their babies without having to worry about (or feel ashamed by) the stigma that surrounds breastfeeding, especially in public. Better understanding about the health value of breastmilk and breastfeeding is something that deserves to be emphasized, especially in countries where women are misled into believing that formula is superior to breastmilk — something that can have devastating effects for their babies. But as McCain, and many others have noted, whatever the conversation, women should be encouraged to make informed decisions about what is best for their babies and themselves, no shaming allowed.