According to the agency, a study from Ghana indicates that one in every five neonatal deaths could be prevented if infants were breastfed within the first hour after birth.
"Early breastfeeding provides critical nutrients, protects infants against deadly diseases and fosters growth and development," said UNICEF's executive director, Ann M. Veneman.
In an effort to promote healthier practices and save lives, countries worldwide are observing World Breastfeeding Week August 1-7, and early initiation of breastfeeding is the unifying theme.
The benefits received by both mother and child from the effects of breastfeeding are enormous and have been demonstrated by scientific articles time and again, health advocates say.
Within the first hours of breastfeeding, babies are able to keep warm and calm from the skin-to-skin contact. In addition, colostrums -- milk produced by a mother's breasts only in the days immediately after childbirth -- is high in antibodies, carbohydrates, and protein. This first milk serves to fight infection and acts as the baby's first immunization, say child health professionals.
Breastfeeding immediately after delivery also helps to reduce maternal bleeding and allows for precious bonding time between mother and baby.
Yet despite the proven benefits breastfeeding can have for mother and child, many cultures remain suspicious of colostrum, believing that it can cause children to experience diarrhea and other illnesses.
This makes outreach programs that facilitate the initiation of early breastfeeding vitally important, says the UN.
The improvement of nutritional habits to combat infant malnutrition has been a priority of the New York-based non-profit group Action Against Hunger, and in Mali their efforts have shown success.
According to a survey the group conducted in the West African country's Gao region, nearly 100 percent of mothers now allow their children to suckle colostrum. In addition, the proportion of mothers that choose breast milk for their children over water or animal milk has risen drastically, from 67 percent in July 2006 to 96 percent in April of this year.
"A woman is capable of adapting her beliefs if she sees that changes in her habits will benefit her child. The maternal instinct to protect a child's survival trumps all traditions," says Nuria Salse, chief nutritionist for Action Against Hunger.
Advocates have faced off against another man-made deterrent to breastfeeding in recent weeks: the strong marketing campaigns of infant formula companies, which try to persuade mothers to choose formula over breast milk.
According to UNICEF, studies found that bottle-fed infants living in disease-ridden and unhygienic conditions are between 6 and 25 times more likely to die of diarrhea as breast-fed infants. They're also four times more likely to die of pneumonia.
Despite this, infant formula is one of the top three consumer products in the Philippines, squeezing nearly $469 million annually from Filipino mothers, according to a recent Asia Times report.
In the Americas, the Pan American Health Organization has joined forces with ministries of health, non-governmental organizations, and families throughout the region to observe World Breastfeeding Week, organizing conferences, parades, art shows, and special events to emphasize the importance of breastfeeding.
"It is critical to reach women in their homes and communities," says UNICEF's Veneman, estimating that over 1 million deaths can be prevented each year by exclusive breastfeeding to the age of six months.
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