The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that as many as 3.3 million children around the world die during their first four weeks of life, with the most common causes of these deaths being infections, premature birth, and asphyxia. World Breastfeeding Week (Aug. 1-7), however, aims to raise awareness about the power of breast milk in reducing death from these factors and others, and it’s all in hopes of achieving the United Nation’s fourth Millennium Development Goal (MDG): Reducing the 1990 mortality rate among under-5 children by two-thirds by 2015.  

“By protecting, promoting, and supporting breastfeeding, we can all contribute to each of the MDG’s in a substantial way,” said Dr. Felicity Savage, chairwoman of the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA), in a press release. “Exclusive breastfeeding and adequate appropriate complementary feeding are key interventions for improving child survival, potentially reducing deaths among children under 5 by about 20 percent. Early and exclusive breastfeeding improves newborn care and reduces neonatal mortality, which contributes to the majority of infant deaths.”

Unfortunately, the majority of health issues relating to newborns and their mothers comes from low- and middle-income countries in Africa and South Asia, where continuity of health care rarely occurs after the mother has given birth. Once she has, however, and assuming that her child doesn’t have to be treated for infections or any other urgent matter, it’s important for at-home care to focus on the baby’s needs. Breastfeeding is one of these.

“Breastfeeding has been shown repeatedly to be the single most effective way to prevent infant death; it plays a major role in children’s health and development, and significantly benefits the health of mothers,” Savage said. Indeed, breastfeeding offers many health benefits to kids. In a brochure, WABA notes that “immediate skin-to-skin contact and early initiation of breastfeeding — putting the baby to the mother’s breast within an hour after birth — could reduce neonatal mortality significantly” Yet, less than 50 percent of newborns are breastfed within this first hour.

In fact, many moms have historically been terrible at breastfeeding their kids, despite it being the best way for an infant or toddler to get proper nutrition. In the U.S., only 49 percent of moms breastfed up to 6 months in 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control’s 2014 Breastfeeding Report Card. At 12 months, that number dropped to 27 percent, despite recommendations supporting the benefits of breastfeeding for that long — the WHO suggests that mothers breastfeed for up to two years. In doing so, studies have shown children will experience improvements in motor and language development, which not only makes them smarter but more able to tackle the world socially as well.

In the U.S., breastfeeding rates have seen a continued rise over the past few years, with 79 percent of newborns receiving breast milk. Even though many of them didn’t get the recommended amount, the simple fact that they got it is one step ahead of other moms around the world. By raising awareness of its benefits, millions of future newborns will be saved.