The World Health Organization says a mother's milk is the perfect food for a newborn baby.  But worldwide statistics show that breastfeeding is frequently abandoned right after birth.  VOA's Melinda Smith has the story of one major U.S. city that is trying to teach its new mothers that the "very first food" is better than manufactured formula.

In the first hour after birth, health experts say there is no more perfect food for baby than the mother's first milk. Colostrum, as it is called, gives the baby the best start in life because it is rich in antibodies.

Yet international marketing campaigns that promote baby formula have been so successful that the World Health Organization has launched breast-feeding campaigns to counter the competition. In many developing countries health workers are trained to support new mothers in breast-feeding techniques.

In recent years there has been a growing movement to urge more mothers to breastfeed.

Denise Munoz of New York City says she would have nursed her babies if doctors had told her about the health benefits. "They never talked to me about breast-feeding before.  Maybe if they would have talked to me, I would have done it."

For years, public hospitals in New York had furnished new mothers with free baby formula.  Some studies have shown that mothers given the free formula are less likely to nurse babies from the breast.

Dr. Susan Vierczhalek of New York's Bellevue Hospital says that is not good for the baby. "If you give formula at that point it can be very detrimental to the whole process and some people never breastfeed successfully because of that."

Alan Aviles, president of the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation, says the city wants to reverse that trend by encouraging more breast-feeding.

"We want it to be a very clear, unambiguous message that breast-feeding really does promote the health of the newborn.  It's the healthy choice."

Other studies show that women who work outside the home frequently choose formula over the real thing. 

Kim Gandy is the president of the National Organization for Women, an activist group for women's rights. "If you say to a new mom, 'You need to breastfeed because it's good for your baby,' and then her employer makes it impossible for her to do that -- all you've done is give her a guilt trip [make her feel guilty].  You haven't really accomplished anything."

The World Health Organization says breast-feeding provides all the nutrition that a baby needs in the first six months and at least half of what it needs the rest of the first year.  It is a gift from the mother that keeps on giving, by helping to protect the child from disease for the rest of his or her life.