Helping new mothers to breastfeed could save the lives of 1.3 million children worldwide each year, the World Health Organization said Friday.

Globally, fewer than 40 per cent of infants under six months of age are exclusively breastfed, as recommended by WHO and the Canadian Pediatric Society.

Statistics Canada reported that 85 per cent of mothers attempted to breastfeed their babies in 2003, and 17 per cent breastfed exclusively for at least six months.

Some women said they abandon it because they don't know how to get their baby to latch on properly or because they feel 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 at the UN agency's head quarters in Geneva.

New mothers in both rich and poor countries need more help from hospitals, health clinics and their communities, she said.

Preventing malnutrition in emergencies

If global breastfeeding rates for infants up to six months of age rose to 90 per cent, an estimated 13 per cent of the 10 million deaths of children under the age of five could be saved, Vallenas said.

The theme for World Breastfeeding Week, which runs Aug. 1-7, stresses the life-saving benefits of breastfeeding, especially during emergencies such as natural disasters or conflicts.

In a statement, WHO director general Dr. Margaret Chan said the best way of preventing malnutrition and disease among infants and young children is to:

  • Ensure that they start breastfeeding within one hour of birth.
  • Breastfeed exclusively (with no food or liquid other than breast milk) until six months of age.
  • Continue breastfeeding with appropriate complementary foods up to two years or beyond.

"During emergencies, unsolicited or uncontrolled donations of breast milk substitutes may undermine breastfeeding and should be avoided," Chan said.

"Instead, the focus should be on active protection and support of breastfeeding by, for example, establishing safe 'corners' for mothers and infants, one-to-one counselling and mother-to-mother support."

Pregnant women should also know about the risks they face from both seasonal flu and the H1N1 pandemic virus. Ideally, antiviral medications should be given within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms, said WHO spokeswoman Aphaluck Bhatiasevi.