How Does Breastfeeding Prevent SIDS?


Breastfeeding your baby is not only a great way to bond with them, but it also provides many health benefits. In addition to the emotional and physical bonding, breastfeeding has been shown to reduce the risk of SIDS. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) or cot death is a healthy infant’s sudden, unexpected, and generally unexplained demise. It is the third leading cause of infant mortality in the US, and approximately 2500 infants die of SIDS every year

The death of an infant is always distressing, but for parents who have to deal with the sudden and unexplained death of their baby it’s even more difficult to cope.

Breastfeeding for at least two months improves baby’s breathing coordination, provides immune benefits, and helps improve sleep which all lower the risk of SIDS.

New parents can reduce their baby’s risk of SIDS in a number of ways, including safe sleeping techniques, SIDS monitors, and as we’ll go through below, breastfeeding.

Why does breastfeeding reduce the risk of SIDS?

A lot of research has been conducted to understand the relation between SIDS and breastfeeding, particularly if the latter can help reduce the risk of the former. Researcher Fern Hauck, a family medicine researcher at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, says that breastfeeding for any length of time or duration is protective against SIDS, as consumption of breast milk has multiple benefits. 

Fights against infection

Breast milk helps fight gastrointestinal and respiratory infections by protecting against the respiratory syncytial virus. 

Gentle to the child’s body

Breast milk is the kindest form of milk for the baby’s timid and developing body. Gastroesophageal reflux (GER) is also less severe in breastfed infants than in formula-fed infants. Human milk is gentle on the infant’s tummy and tends to empty faster from their body. GER can sometimes be so intense that it later aggravates SIDS. 

Sound sleep 

Melatonin, an important sleep hormone present in breastmilk, is capable of decreasing colic and dry spells. Feeding breast milk improves sleep quality, and it is observed that breastfed infants tend to have a sound sleep and stay calmer and happier. However, there are not many differences in sleep patterns among formula-fed infants and breastfed infants. The cholecystokinin found in breast milk can also make the baby feel fuller and naturally caress them to sleep. You can often spot your little one yawning after a feed, and their yawn can be in part due to cholecystokinin. 

Improves swallowing and breathing coordination

Infants gradually develop coordination between swallowing and breathing during breastfeeding. As per a citation of pathologist Dr. Tonkin, the muscles involved in bottle-feeding are different, leading to enlarged tongues. Enlarged tongues before time lead to narrowing of the airway in infants. 

Furthermore, in a larger number of infants who succumbed to SIDS, it has been observed that the tongue sizes were enlarged relative to others, which supports Dr. Tonkin’s theory. This observation supports the indication that breastfeeding reduces the risk of SIDS. 

A mother’s touch

Skin-to-skin contact with the mother’s body can make both parties feel warm, secure, and calm. Formula feeding is often without this connection. If you are formula feeding, try skin to skin where possible and talk to your baby while they’re feeding. Ask your partner and family members who feed your baby to do the same.

Are breastfed babies less at risk of SIDS?

A breastfed infant is 50% less likely to die of SIDS than one who has not been breastfed for the first six months of their life. However, these findings are largely based on observational studies, so any individual baby’s risk will depend on lots of different factors.

Bottle-fed babies were shown to be twice as likely to die from SIDS, per a review where researchers analyzed a number of studies, but they note confounding variables as a potential issue with their findings.

How long should you breastfeed to prevent SIDS?

Between two to six months is the age range when a child is most susceptible to SIDS. Many studies suggest that breastfeeding for at least two months helps reduce the risk of SIDS. However, medical professionals and the World Health Organisation recommend breastfeeding the baby for at least six months for the greatest protective effect, and then slowly introducing solids.

Supplementary breastfeeding can still be carried out until the child turns two years of age or as per the wish of the mother and the child. 

Does formula increase the risk of SIDS?

Studies have found that infants who are fed formula may be at a higher risk of SIDS, when compared to combination-fed and exclusively breastfed babes. Even if you can’t exclusively breastfeed, mix feeding with formula is still associated with SIDS risk reduction.

Nutritionally, there are a number of formulas on the market that are close to breastmilk, but these do not provide the same benefit of reducing the risk of sudden infant death syndrome as exclusive breastfeeding, or partial breastfeeding does.

While formula-fed infants are at a higher risk of SIDS and overall infant death relative to breastfed infants, it is important to note that breastfeeding is not the only factor that contributes to SIDS risk reduction – fed is best. Other factors include safer sleep conditions and appropriate sleepwear.

What is the main cause of SIDS?

The cause of SIDS is unknown. Many specialists and researchers feel that SIDS is linked to difficulties in the baby’s capacity to arouse from sleep or detect low levels of oxygen, or due to a buildup of carbon dioxide in the blood. Babies who sleep face down may breathe exhaled carbon dioxide, which is why safe sleeping conditions are so crucial.

There are no symptoms or warning signs of SIDS. Before being put to bed, babies who die of SIDS appear healthy. They don’t show any indications of resistance and are frequently found in the same posture as when they were placed in the crib.

In conclusion, if you can breastfeed, you reduce SIDS risk

Breastfeeding is a significant component to reducing SIDS risk in babies. The connection breastfeeding provides between mother and child should not be understated; the skin-to-skin contact makes both parties feel warm, secure, and calm while providing other health benefits such as improved swallowing coordination. Where possible, ideally a baby would be exclusively breastfeed for at least two months, but ideally at least six months.

Breastfeeding has been found in some studies to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome by 50%. If you cannot breastfeed exclusively for at least six months, mix-fed infants have a significantly lower risk than exclusively formula-fed babies. Formula feeding does not provide any benefits in preventing SIDS that breastfeeding doesn’t already offer.

Keep in mind that your baby is unique and as such, if you notice any change in the sleep or behavioral patterns, take your child to see their pediatrician – being informed will help reduce risk factors, too.

Carly Wight

Mother of two young boys (6 and 3!) and an avid "Googler", Carly is the kind to research something to the nth degree. Be it about products, hacks, or techniques, she shares what she finds out at her website - Fairy Good Mommy.

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