Some 77 million new-born babies are not put to the breast within an hour of birth, depriving them of the essential nutrients that protect them from disease and death, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) says.

Putting the baby on the breast immediately after birth provides the best start for the baby and saves life. The thick yellowish milk also known as colostrum is very healthy and helps protect the baby from illness, according to medical experts.

“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,” France Bégin, UNICEF Senior Nutrition Adviser says.

The warning comes as the world marks Breastfeeding Week celebrated annually from 1-7th August in over 170 countries to promote breastfeeding and improve infant nutrition around the world.

“If all babies are fed on nothing but breast milk from the moment they are born until they are six months old, over 800,000 lives would be saved every year.”

In Uganda, 37 percent of mothers do not exclusively breastfeed their babies in the first 6 months, thereby increasing the risk of illness of these infants, compromise their growth and also raise the risk of death or disability.

UNICEF data shows that progress in getting more newborns breastfed within the first hour of life has been slow over the past 15 years. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, where under-five mortality rates are the highest worldwide, early breastfeeding rates increased by just 10 percentage points since 2000 in East and Southern Africa but have remained unchanged in West and Central Africa.

UNICEF adds that delaying breastfeeding by 2-23 hours after birth increases the risk of dying in the first 28 days of life by 40 per cent. Delaying it by 24 hours or more increases the risk to 80 per cent. According to the Uganda Demographic Health Survey, 27 newborns die in the first 28 days, 20 die in the first week and 13 die in the first 24 hours.

“Breast milk is a baby’s first vaccine, the first and best protection they have against illness and disease,” said Begin adds. “With newborns accounting for nearly half of all deaths of children under five, early breastfeeding can make the difference between life and death.”

UNICEF analyses show that women are not getting the help they need to start breastfeeding immediately after birth even when a doctor, nurse of midwife is assisting their delivery.

Maternal nutrition during breastfeeding is also very critical. Breastfeeding mothers need to eat regular nutritious meals and sometimes two extra meals with foods rich in iron, vitamin A and folic acid, beans, grains, green vegetables and fruits, milk, eggs, fish, chicken, meat in order to have sufficient breast milk for their babies. Breastfeeding mothers should also get more rest.

Globally, only 43 per cent of infants under six months old are exclusively breastfed. Babies who are not breastfed at all are 14 times more likely to die than those who are fed only breast milk.

But any amount of breast milk reduces a child’s risk of death. Babies who received no breast milk at all are seven times more likely to die from infections than those who received at least some breast milk in their first six months of life.