Breastfeeding in the first hour of life is 'baby's first vaccine'.

There is a renewed call to promote the importance of breastfeeding in the first hour after birth with research showing that one in two babies are not put to the breast within an hour of birth.

The promotion of the “early initiation of breastfeeding” is seen to be beneficial in providing newborns essential nutrients, antibodies and skin-to-skin contact with their mother that protect them from disease and death.

This week, World Breastfeeding Week, has seen UNICEF call for worldwide greater understanding of the benefits of this crucial hour and that vital first feed – so important it is being called baby’s ‘first vaccine.’

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“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,”

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

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 breastmilk.

Delaying breastfeeding by two to 23 hours after birth increases the risk of a baby dying in its first month by 40% and delaying by 24 hours or more increases the risk of a baby dying to 80%.


Data from UNICEF has shown that progress in getting more newborns breastfed within the first hour of life has been slow over the past 15 years – particularly in areas of sub-Saharan Africa where under-five mortality rates are the highest worldwide.

Even in South Asia, where the rates of early breastfeeding initiation tripled in 15 years, from 16 per cent in 2000 to 45 per cent in 2015, the increase is far from enough 21 million newborns still wait too long before they are breastfed.

Progress in getting more newborns breastfed within the first hour of life has been slow over the past 15 years. Image via UNICEF.

UNICEF found that feeding babies other liquids or foods is one reason early breastfeeding is delayed. In many countries, it is customary to feed a baby infant formula, cow’s milk or sugar water in the first three days of life. Almost half of all newborns are fed these liquids.

“When babies are given less nutritious alternatives to breastmilk, they breastfeed less often, making it harder for mothers to start and continue breastfeeding,” said the agency.

Studies have shown that mothers who feed or have skin contact with their babies in the first 2 hours after birth are more likely to breastfeed for longer than those who don’t.  Most babies, left skin-to-skin on their mother gradually crawl to the breast, find the nipple, attach and begin to suckle unaided, usually within 70-90 minutes.

Australian health workers need to encourage mothers to be left with their babies before bathing. Image via IStock.

In Australia there is a nationwide initiative to have 80 percent of infants being breastfed at the age of 6 months, but the 2010 Australian National Infant Feeding Survey results showed that while 96% of mothers initiate breastfeeding less than half (39%) of babies are still being exclusively breastfed to 3 months (less than 4 months) and less than one quarter (15%) to 5 months (less than 6 months).

Bodies such as Queensland Health encourage health workers to help mothers breastfeed within the first hour asking that mothers and babies should remain together for at least the first hour after birth, prior to weighing and bathing to allow the infant to follow their instinctive behaviours.


Benefits of breastfeeding in the first hour:

  • Babies who are left skin to skin with their mothers for the first hours immediately after birth are better able to regulate their temperature and respiration.
  •  It builds the mother’s confidence in her ability to breastfeed.
  • The baby starts to receive the immunological benefits of colostrum.
  • The infant’s digestion and bowel function are stimulated.
  • Correct sucking at the breast at this stage may avert later sucking difficulties.
  • The bonding and attachment between mother and infant are enhanced.