Health experts have admitted that they are struggling to convince new mothers and their families to breast feed their newborn within an hour of birth and up to six months after birth.
Age-old myths like giving honey or sacred water from the local temple to the infant still continues to be the norm. And this is followed by people living in both rural and urban areas, the experts add.
Speaking to IANS, anganwadi worker Sanjana Chisti said she still gets to hear from families that the infant will not be able to digest mother's milk.
"Many families avoid giving mother's milk to the new born infant saying they cannot digest it. For the first few days, they give water or honey. In many cases they give only sacred water from the temple," Chisti said. It is really difficult to make people understand the importance of mother's milk, she added.
"It is very tough to convince women that colostrum (a thick yellow milk) should be given to an infant within an hour after delivery as it has immunological properties," said Chisti, who works in the Najafgarh area of west Delhi.
As per the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3), 2005-06, only 29 percent mothers in India start breastfeeding within half an hour of birth in urban areas and 21 percent in rural areas.
According to pediatrician Pragathy Varshney, she has come across many families who give their child cow's milk and not mother's milk.
"One of the common practices in India is to give cow's milk. Cow's milk is not suitable for feeding infants from birth to 12 months of age," Varshney told IANS.
Feeding cow's milk can lead to malnutrition and at times the lactose in milk can cause diarrhoea and gas.
The District Level Health Survey (DLHS) indicates that in the national capital, only 12 percent of women exclusively breastfed their children for the first six months. This is the second-lowest figure in the country after Haryana, where it was just 9.4 percent.
As per DLHS figures, almost 35 percent of infants (in urban areas) were not breastfed within one day of birth and almost half - 48 percent - in rural areas were not breastfed within one day.
According to pediatricians, in rural areas, myths and age-old traditions prevent women from breastfeeding, while in urban areas, most working mothers don't have the time or they don't want to have saggy breasts.
"The babies' health should be of prime importance. Working women can extract breast milk and maintain it at room temperature for nearly eight hours and give it at short intervals. It will not do any harm to the infant," Puneet Bhat, a pediatrician with the Max Superspeciality Hospital Patparganj in east Delhi, told IANS.
Experts said improper infant feeding practices can lead to malnutrition among children, while many infant mortalities happen due to diarrhea and pneumonia.
"Diarrhoea and other diseases can be easily prevented with appropriate feeding practices during the first year of life. A bottle-fed baby or an infant who is given supplementary food is more prone to die of diarrhea and acute respiratory infections than breastfeed babies," Bhat said.
Experts also say it is not just social taboos that play a role, but the aggressive marketing by multinational companies to promote baby foods as supplementary diet also attracts young mothers.
Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India (BPNI), an NGO working in the area, said many baby food giants promote supplementary baby food, thus misleading mothers and undermining breastfeeding.
"Like the separate fund allotted for immunization for children, a separate fund should be allocated to boost infant feeding practices throughout the country," said Arun Gupta, regional coordinator, International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) for Asia.
"We have only guidelines for advocacy of infant and young child feeding, but a national-level authority with a separate budget allocation is a must," he told IANS.
Gupta also said many young mothers, especially those who are working, adopt artificial feeding of supplementary products like milk powders due to insufficiency of their breast milk for the baby.
"Breastfeeding is controlled by hormones. These hormones mostly depend upon the state of mind of the mother; increasing exclusive breastfeeding rates is possible through individual or group counselling by an adequately trained worker. Only seven countries out of 51 have such a provision of trained lactation counsellors," Gupta added.
The World Breastfeeding Trends Initiative (WBTI), launched by IBFAN, ranks India at 31 out of the 51 countries in the infant feeding practices.
The percentage was found higher in neighbouring countries such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Bhutan.
To raise awareness on the benefits of breastfeeding, World Breastfeeding Week is observed from August 1 to 7.