Teaching new mothers how to breastfeed could save 1.3 million children's lives every year, but many women get no help and give up trying, the World Health Organization said on Friday.
Less than 40 percent of mothers worldwide breastfeed their infants exclusively in the first six months, as recommended by the WHO. Many abandon it because they don't know how to get their baby to latch on properly or suffer pain and discomfort.
"When it comes to doing it practically, they don't have the practical support," WHO expert Constanza Vallenas told a news briefing in Geneva, where the United Nations agency is based.
This is a problem in both rich and poor countries, she said, calling for more assistance in hospitals, health clinics and communities for new mothers who need information and help.
Pregnant women should also be made aware of the risks they face from both seasonal flu and the new H1N1 pandemic, the WHO said, calling as well for more attention to influenza symptoms in the vulnerable group.
Expectant mothers should get top priority for antiviral drugs like Tamiflu, ideally administered within 48 hours of the onset of illness, WHO spokeswoman Aphaluck Bhatiasevi told reporters.
"Pregnant women, when they get flu, are at risk and they should see a doctor," she said. "It adds to the risk and it is really essential for pregnant women to seek medication."
U.S. health experts have said that pregnant women should also be first to get vaccines against the H1N1 virus, known as swine flu, with caregivers for infants second.
The WHO recommends that babies start breastfeeding within one hour of their birth, and ingest only breast milk for the first six months, avoiding water and other drinks and foods.
This can give children vital nutrients and strengthen their immune system to fight diseases like diarrhea and pneumonia. Formula milk does not provide the same immunity and local water can be contaminated or unsafe in many parts of the world.
Raising to 90 percent the global breastfeeding rate for infants to six months would save an estimated 13 percent of the 10 million under-age-5 deaths a year, Vallenas said.
In a statement released to mark World Breastfeeding Week, August 1-7, WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said it was also important that mothers in disaster zones be given the support they need to continue or restart breastfeeding.
"During emergencies, unsolicited or uncontrolled donations of breast milk substitutes may undermine breastfeeding and should be avoided," Chan said, arguing abandoning breastfeeding could put vulnerable child lives at extra risk. "The focus should be on active protection and support of breastfeeding."