The power of the first hour: breastfeeding saves lives

One-day-old Watta with her 17-year-old mother Comfort in Liberia. Comfort walked seven hours to a Save the Children supported Maternal Waiting Room. She is breastfeeding her baby and plans to continue past infancy.

Photo by Save the Children UK: thanks to the generosity of Save the Children supporters and health workers, Watta’s mum, Comfort, had access to all the emergency supplies and information about breastfeeding she needed during Watta’s fragile first hour.

The baby is born. In that first hour, his mother brings him to her breast and he drinks liquid gold.

Colostrum, that first milk, can mean life or death. Its components are highly concentrated to coat his intestines – protecting against germs and foreign protein – welcome beneficial bacteria and get that first stool moving out.*

But what if the mother is robbed of the opportunity to give it to him? What if her baby is one out of three born without a skilled birth attendant? What if this means she doesn’t receive breastfeeding support she needs?

What if cultural tradition misinforms her that her lifesaving colostrum is dirty?

What if her husband or mother-in-law makes the decision about how she feeds her baby?

What if she is hindered by knowing she’ll have to return to work when her baby is two days old?

What if she is visited by a “milk nurse”, employed by a formula company, who insinuates that although “breast is best”, actually, her baby will grow up with everything he needs from the tin in this leaflet?

What if she does have health care but her midwife hasn’t received adequate breastfeeding training and has been given formula samples to hand out?

What if she doesn’t have clean water and sterilising equipment to make up the bottle? What if she doesn’t know how important that is?

What if she can’t afford formula and ends up diluting it to stretch it?

What if she gives her tiny baby coffee or butter?

What if this means she won’t breastfeed her baby in that first hour? Or the first six months? Or into the second year?

And what if this means he will die?

What if he could have been one of the 22% saved by breastfeeding in the first hour or one of the 16% saved by breastfeeding in the first 24 hours?

What if mixed feeding in his first months means he will die of pneumonia or diarrhea?

830,000 babies could be saved by being breastfed – this is what Save the Children is telling us.

The charity launches its campaign today to protect, support and promote breastfeeding.

It reports that breastfeeding rates are declining across East Asia and African countries such as Ethiopia and Nigeria.

Two thirds of babies, internationally, are artificially fed or fed a mixture of breastmilk and other foods and, depending on their circumstances, the results are literally disastrous.

Not breastfeeding or sub-optimal breastfeeding destines too many babies for malnutrition and removes their protection against disease.

We are talking about preventable deaths.

That’s why Save the Children is calling on the international community to rediscover the importance of breastfeeding and to commit to support mothers so they can breastfeed their babies.

A key focus will be this years G8 “hunger summit” hosted here in the UK. Let’s call on G8 leaders to put nutrition, including breastfeeding, at the top of the agenda.

Find out more about The Power of the First Hour and how you can get involved.

The report I pulled information from for this post is Superfood for Babies: How overcoming barriers to breastfeeding will save children’s lives.

As a mother and a breastfeeding peer supporter, this is an issue that I’m particularly passionate about so I’ll be writing about it more in the coming weeks.

However, even if you’re not a parent or your children weren’t breastfed, this is just too big for any of us to ignore. Please sign the petition to the CEOs of Nestle and Danone asking them to stop any conduct that undermines breastfeeding in poorer countries.

* You can read more about colostrum in The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding.