New York, NY (BBN)– Breastfeeding offers babies a lifeline during emergencies, the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) said as World Breastfeeding Week kicks off Saturday.

“The life-saving role during emergencies is firmly supported by evidence and guidance,” WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said in a statement.

This year’s week focuses on the critical part played by breastfeeding during emergencies, including wars and natural disasters, with small children being hit especially hard by emergencies, facing a triple risk of death from diarrhea, pneumonia and under-nutrition.

Breastfeeding must begin within one hour of birth to prevent malnutrition and mortality, the WHO said.

The agency also recommends that babies are breastfed exclusively until they reach the age of six months, and then continue to be breastfed, and receive complementary food, until two years or beyond.

During crises, breastfeeding must be protected and supported through, among other measures, setting up safe corners for mothers and infants, counseling and mother-to-mother support, the WHO added.

This year’s breastfeeding week rounds out the theme – making hospitals safer in emergencies – of World Health Day 2009, the agency’s chief noted.

BBN/SS/SI/AD-02August09-3:44 am (BST)