An estimated 78 million babies (three in five) are not breastfed within the first hour of life, putting them at higher risk of death and disease and making them less likely to continue breastfeeding.
The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and World Health Organisation (WHO) report has said most of these babies were born in low- and middle-income countries.
The report, which was made available to the Ghana News Agency by Dr Paul Garwood, WHO, Geneva, noted that newborns who breastfed in the first hour of life were significantly more likely to survive.
It said even a delay of a few hours after birth could pose life-threatening consequences.
It indicated that skin-to-skin contact along with suckling at the breast stimulated the mother’s production of breastmilk, including colostrum, also called the baby’s ‘first vaccine’, which was extremely rich in nutrients and antibodies.
“When it comes to the start of breastfeeding, timing is everything. In many countries, it can even be a matter of life or death,” the report quoted Dr Henrietta H. Fore, UNICEF Executive Director.
“Yet each year, millions of newborns miss out on the benefits of early breastfeeding and the reasons – all too often – are things we can change. Mothers simply don’t receive enough support to breastfeed within those crucial minutes after birth, even from medical personnel at health facilities," she added.
The report said breastfeeding rates within the first hour after birth were highest in Eastern and Southern Africa (65 per cent) and lowest in East Asia and the Pacific (32 per cent).
It said nearly nine in 10 babies born in Burundi, Sri Lanka and Vanuatu were breastfed within the first hour.
It said by contrast, only two in ten babies born in Azerbaijan, Chad and Montenegro do so.
“Breastfeeding gives children the best possible start in life,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO, Director-General.
“We must urgently scale up support to mothers – be it from family members, health care workers, employers and governments, so they can give their children the start they deserve," he added.
Capture the Moment, which analyzes data from 76 countries, found that despite the importance of early initiation of breastfeeding, too many newborns were left waiting too long for different reasons.
These were feeding newborns food or drinks, including formula, the rise in elective C-sections and gaps in the quality of care provided to mothers and newborns.
Earlier studies, cited in the report, showed that newborns who began breastfeeding between two and 23 hours after birth had a 33 hours greater risk of dying compared with those who began breastfeeding within one hour of birth.
It said among newborns who started breastfeeding a day or more after birth, the risk was more than twice as high.
The report urges governments, donors and other decision-makers to adopt strong legal measures to restrict the marketing of infant formula and other breastmilk substitutes.
The WHO and UNICEF-led Global Breastfeeding Collective also released the 2018 Global Breastfeeding Scorecard, which tracks progress for breastfeeding policies and programmes.
In it, they encourage countries to advance policies and programmes that helped all mothers to start breastfeeding in the first hour of their child’s life and to continue as long as they wanted.