Today countries around the world start celebrating World Breastfeeding Week, which this year emphasizes the importance of breastfeeding in the first hour of life.

World Breastfeeding Week (WBW) 2007 is encouraging breastfeeding in the first hour of life because research shows that early initiation and exclusive breastfeeding for six months can save lives. This is the reason behind this year’s WBW catchphrase: “Breast Feeding the 1st Hour – Save One Million Babies”.

World Breastfeeding Week is supported by a number of global and national organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO), who are keen to promote awareness about the importance of breastfeeding soon after birth because of the lifelong health benefits of receiving a mother’s first milk, colostrum, the “perfect food for every newborn”.

A 2006 study published in the journal Pediatrics suggested that 41 per cent of newborns that die in the first month of life could be saved if breastfed in the first hour of life.

The WHO also 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“. There are 170 million underweight children in the world and 3 million of them die every year.

Colostrum is a sticky yellow-white substance yielded by the mother’s breast soon after birth. It is rich in antibodies and essential nutrients. Yet, in many cultures, ignorant of its health benefits, the custom is to throw it away. Giving newborns water or other liquids denies them a “good start in life” says the WHO, referring to the WHO Child Growth Standards and how babies fed colostrum within the first hour of being born measure up well against the standards.

Breastfeeding in the first hour or so after birth also confers benefits to the mother, such as improved lactation and less loss of blood.

This year, the theme “Breast Feeding the 1st Hour” is also linked with another phrase: “Welcome Baby Softly”. The idea of this theme is to encourage health professionals to “protect” the first hour after birth and help mother and baby bond in a natural, uniterrupted way and maximise the chance the infant will latch onto the breast and stimulate lactation.

President of the International Lactation Consultant Association (ILCA), Rebecca Mannel said that newborns are programmed to find the breast and will often find it by themselves when placed on the mother’s chest, skin to skin.

“In the early moments after birth, babies are in a quiet, alert state and ready to learn”, said Mannel in a prepared statement.

“Babies use all five senses to explore that world. They use their eyes to memorize their mothers’ faces, their ears to associate her voice with her face, and their sense of smell to guide them in finding the breast”, she added.

Newborns have a heightened sense of taste too, and this is particularly sensitive to the taste of breast milk. Mannel also said that “When mothers hold their babies skin-to-skin immediately after birth, their babies are kept warm, they regulate their heart, respiratory, and oxygen saturation rates, and they do not feel pain as acutely”. Babies who have this experience cry less, and are calmer, she said.

United Nations (UN) agencies and the WHO have recently expressed concern that breastfeeding appears to be declining in the Asia-Pacific regions and this is making it harder for babies and children to survive. They want parents to become more aware of the risks of using breast milk substitutes.

At a conference in Manila in the Phillipines last month, experts told an assembly of doctors that breastfeeding reduces child mortality and they showed figures from Cambodia, where child mortality has decreased dramatically following a vigorous and successful breastfeeding campaign.

Between 2000 and 2005 the proportion of Cambodian mothers who were breastfeeding their babies until they were at least six months old jumped from 10 to 60 per cent, according to a BBC report from their correspondent in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. This compares with about 30 to 40 per cent across Asia as a whole, according to the WHO.

Child deaths in Cambodia over the same timescale dropped by over 30 per cent, which the WHO credits to the dramatic increase in breastfeeding. The BBC correspondent said that large posters showing mothers breastfeeding were commonplace and the government had set up breastfeeding friendly sites in towns and villages.

A Unicef spokesperson told the BBC that the average family in the developing world believes bottle feeding is better for the baby than breast milk.

Breastfeeding is particularly protective for those babies born in towns and villages where water quality is unreliable and can make formula feeding unsafe.

Child development experts say that breastfeeding benefits all children, not just those in developing countries. It improves cognitive development and reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes, for example.

Click here for more information on World Breastfeeding Week.

Click here for the International Lactation Consultant Association (ILCA).

Click here for WHO Child Growth Standards.

Written by: Catharine Paddock