I have traveled to both Kenya and Ethiopia over the past year and half, and what I can say as someone who has newly traveled to the continent is that breastfeeding seems to be the norm among childbearing women there, just judging by the number of women I have seen breastfeeding as well as the pro-breastfeeding posters and handouts I've noticed in several hospitals. Upon closer inspection, however, breastfeeding isn't as ubiquitous as we might assume. In fact, only 58 percent of Kenyan mothers breastfeed their baby within the first hour after delivery, and only 52 percent of Ethiopian women put baby to breast right after delivery. In contrast, 95 percent of mothers in Malawi immediately breastfeed after delivery.
Save the Children recently released a brand-new breastfeeding report, "Superfood for Babies," which says that 830,000 babies' lives can be saved worldwide if they are breastfed within the critical first hour after birth. In the first hour after birth, babies benefit from drinking colostrum, the most effective and potent immune-system-boosting natural substance on the planet. Babies who are breastfed within the very first hour after birth are three times more likely to survive than if they are breastfed a day after birth.
Breastfeeding is critical to the survival of children in the world's most income-poor countries. More importantly, immediate breastfeeding is unquestioningly crucial to a baby's survival. According to "Superfood for Babies," 22 percent of newborn deaths can be reduced with simple first-hour breastfeeding.
While advocating for mothers to breastfeed within the first hour after delivering their babies sounds easy enough, breastfeeding rates have stagnated, and globally, only 40 percent of mothers breastfeed. Save the Children has documented four barriers that hinder mothers' ability to breastfeed exclusively at least for the first six months of life.
Four Major Barriers to Immediate Breastfeeding
1. Cultural and community pressure: Even though breastfeeding is one of the most natural gifts a mother can give her child, cultural customs prevent some mothers from immediate and sustained breastfeeding. For example, in India, some believe that the first milk, colostrum, should be expressed out of a mother's breast before breastfeeding. Some customs are detrimental to the health of babies and their survival.
2. Global health worker shortage: Across the developing world, there is a major shortage of frontline health workers that must be addressed. When health workers help deliver a baby, a mother is two times more likely to breastfeed during the first hour after delivery than when giving birth without a skilled birth attendant
3. Lack of maternity legislation: Women in most low-income countries do not benefit from protections and legislation to help them breastfeed. Out of the 36 low-income countries that Save the Children looked at, Vietnam was the only country that provided adequate maternity leave (six weeks).
4. Aggressive marketing of breast-milk substitutes: The global baby food market is currently worth $36 billion, and it often aggressively targets mothers to convince them buy their products, especially breast-milk substitutes. In Save the Children's China survey, 40 percent of mothers interviewed had been contacted directly by baby food company representatives. Additionally, in Pakistan, one third of health professionals said they'd been visited by a representative of breast-milk substitute companies, and 10 percent of health professionals said that their health facility had received free samples of formula, teats or bottles, according to the report.
Nestlé and Danone own the lion's share of the breast-milk substitute market. This poster was snapped in a maternity ward in an Ethiopian hospital. What is particularly bad about this advertisement is that it was in the NICU.
In "Superfood for Babies," Save the Children also found that women who are uneducated are 19-percent less likely to initiate breastfeeding and 13-percent less likely to sustain breastfeeding with their babies. Those who are most uneducated tend to rely on traditional customs, and those who have more education tend to be part of the workforce and have increased opportunity to see formula marketing and also tend to have low breastfeeding numbers.
Brazil: An Example in Reducing Child Mortality Through Increased Breastfeeding
Brazil has cut infant mortality by 50 percent over the past twenty years through an emphasis on breastfeeding. Every maternity hospital in Brazil has a human milk bank. Isla Fisher traveled to Brazil with Save the Children to show the amazing progress of the nation.
A Call to Action
Save the Children is urging everyone who believes in increased child health to sign a petition urging new Secretary of State John Kerry to fight for newborn nutrition and the renewal of the 1,000 Days Call to Action that is set to expire in a few short months. Visit savethechildren.org/superfood to make your voice heard.