How to Lower the Infant Mortality Rate

By Katharine Paljug and Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
October 19, 2023
How to Lower the Infant Mortality Rate

Breastfeeding skin to skin during the first hour following birth is ideal. Any breastfeeding can even save your baby’s life. Here’s what you should know.

It’s no secret that breastfeeding lowers infant mortality around the world. You might think the problem is unsafe water or baby formula and that American babies don’t need human milk. That’s not so.

According to a study of nearly 10 million U.S. babies across the country, breastfed infants are 33 percent less likely to die during their first year.

The numbers increase the longer babies are breastfed. For example, in that research, breastfeeding as long as four to six months reduces the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) by 60 percent. Among premature babies, breastfeeding reduces the rate of deaths from a disease of the intestines called necrotizing enterocolitis.


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Breastmilk is a perfect baby food. It is, in effect, medicine that boosts your baby’s immune system while providing all the energy and nutrients required during his or her first months. That’s why the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends breastfeeding as soon as possible and feeding your child human milk exclusively for the first six months.

Starting during the first hour after birth helps a baby bond, learn to latch, and receive an immediate natural vaccine in the milk against childhood illnesses.

More than 820,000 children’s lives could be saved every year if all children were breastfed as recommended, the WHO reports.

Whatever you might read about the benefits of formula, independent researchers have concluded that human milk is best for your baby. Any amount of breastfeeding, including feeding human milk from a bottle, improves a child’s chance of survival.

Breastmilk should ideally be part of your baby’s diet until the age of two. After six months, it can be about half of a child’s diet until age one, and up to a third from age one to two.

Breastfed children, the WHO notes, “perform better on intelligence tests, are less likely to be overweight or obese, and less prone to diabetes later in life.”

It’s a health plus for women as well, reducing the risk of breast and ovarian cancers. In one small study, women who breastfed for more than 13 months were 63 percent less likely to develop ovarian cancer than women who breastfed for fewer than seven.

Breastfeeding and SIDS

According to the Safe to Sleep campaign run by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, it’s essential to keep babies on their backs at night and for naps, while allowing them tummy time in their waking hours.

Human milk makes a big difference, too, and the longer you continue breastfeeding or pumping the better.

Why breastfeeding might not happen

Some mothers cannot breastfeed for reasons that include:

  • The mother has HIV and is receiving antiviral medications
  • The mother is receiving chemotherapy for cancer
  • The mother uses illegal drugs or alcohol
  • The infant has galactosemia, a rare metabolic disorder

Around the globe, fewer than half of infants breastfeed during the first hour of life or are exclusively breastfed for six months.

The numbers have gone in the right direction during the past decade. One big problem is food companies. They still push mothers to rely on formula products, and most countries don’t enforce rules against false marketing.

Mothers need more protection against false marketing and misinformation online as well as support for breastfeeding in hospitals and at work.

Hospitals need to train staff to assist and promote breastfeeding within the first hour and provide support groups and professionals to help with breastfeeding problems.

In the United States, more than 600 facilities have been designated as “baby-friendly,” according to WH0 criteria, representing 27 percent of all births. 

How to get the help you need

The most basic need is for help breastfeeding. “More than 80 percent of families intend to breastfeed, but a much smaller percentage, around 30 to 40 percent, actually reach their breastfeeding goals. That’s a huge gap,” says Paula Schreck, MD, the medical director for breastfeeding support services at Ascension St. John Hospital in Detroit. “We know that sometimes to reach your goals, you need encouragement and support.”

Working mothers tend to think infants should try formula early, in case it’s needed during separations, but that’s not true, she says. Mothers also worry that they’re not producing enough milk, and the baby might be underfed.

Ask a doctor to evaluate your baby’s weight and know that you can continue feeding human milk even if you also use formula.

Some mothers have trouble breastfeeding and resent pressure. It may be painful and inconvenient.

Get any help you need. The decision is always yours — in full knowledge that nature designed humans to breastfeed and receive the many benefits.

Resources for breastfeeding mothers


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October 19, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN