How Does Breastfeeding Reduce The Risk Of SIDS

How Does Breastfeeding Reduce The Risk Of SIDS

How Does Breastfeeding Reduce The Risk Of SIDS

The CDC reports that approximately 3500 babies die suddenly and unexpectedly every year in the United States. SIDS or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome is one of the leading causes of death in the first year of a baby’s life resulting in the deaths of 1500 babies in the U.S in 2016. This statistical data makes us wonder are there ways that can help us keep our baby safe from SIDS?

Let us first take a quick overview of SIDS, and what circumstances may have made some babies more prone to SIDS than others.

SIDS and Its Risk Factors

SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) is the term used by experts to describe the sudden death of infants one year and below, when after investigation and autopsy remain unexplained, or the cause is unknown. Numerous research studies have been carried out to determine links to try to explain why this sudden death occurs in young babies. Experts who gathered data from several case studies found out the following circumstances when SIDS is highly likely to occur:

  • At the first 6 months of baby’s life, with higher cases between 2 to 4 months of age
  • When the baby is asleep, can either be during nap time or nighttime
  • Occurs most often between 10:00 pm and 10:00 am (peaking at around 5:00 in the morning)
  • More common during the winter season
  • More prevalent in male babies than in females (with a ratio of 1.5: 1.0)

Apart from the circumstances and environmental considerations above, experts also found out some other risk factors that make some babies more prone to SIDS than others. These risk factors aren’t the cause of death since the real cause is still unknown. Risk factors are more like “clues” or conditions that have been found common in the babies affected by SIDS. Researchers inform the public of these clues to help reduce SIDS cases. These risk factors include:

  • Prematurity or infants that are born with a lower age of gestation
  • Smoking or taking illegal drugs while pregnant
  • Smoking around a newly born baby
  • Infants who sleep on their stomach
  • Infants who are not breastfeeding
  • Mothers who did not receive adequate prenatal care
  • Unsafe sleeping environment

Breastfeeding and Reducing the Risk of SIDS

Health advocates and institutions support breastfeeding from birth to 2 years of age. Several studies have shown the beneficial effects of breastfeeding to newborn babies and reducing the risk of SIDS can be one of the most promising. Are you ready to know more about how breastfeeding may help you keep your baby away from SIDS?

Dr. William Sears, a well-known advocate of breastfeeding says that there are 3 factors in breastfeeding that may explain why breastfed babies have a decreased risk for SIDS than the rest. These are “the milk,” “the mother” and the “method.”


According to Sears, there are numerous substances found in human milk which are not present in artificial milk. Each year, researchers discover certain factors in breast milk which are beneficial for babies’ growth and development. Though the exact link is yet to be found between these factors and the reduction of SIDS, here are some of the most essential points to consider according to Sears’ theory:

  • Breast milk helps combat infections

The first year of life is when babies are more prone to infections, specifically, infections in their respiratory and gastrointestinal system. One example is the RSV or respiratory syncytial virus infection. It involves the inflammation of the baby’s lungs that can contribute to SIDS.  Since babies don’t have a fully developed immune system, they are more likely to catch this kind of infection which can spread even from simple hugs and kisses.

This is where the miraculous power of breast milk comes into the picture. Breastfeeding moms have the ability to pass on their immunity to their babies through breast milk. This has something to do with what we call the “enteromammary immune system,” which involves the production of infection-fighting cells within the mom’s intestine and releasing it into her bloodstream to where it reaches her breasts. In turn, the breast glands can make antibodies that can be delivered to her baby. Pretty amazing isn’t it?

  • Breast milk aids in brain development

Recent studies found out that there are certain “growth factors” found in breast milk that can aid in better brain development. Substances like cholesterol, linolenic acid, taurine, and DHA are found in their natural state in breast milk. The most promising is DHA which is a vital fat that helps in creating “myelin” or the sheath that insulates the nerves and helps them communicate with each other faster.

  • Breast milk is gentler for baby’s small airways

When compared to artificial milk which is made from cow’s milk or soy milk, breast milk has the lowest tendency to produce allergies for the baby. Why? This is because human milk isn’t considered as a foreign body, unlike the artificial counterparts. Another point is that it helps develop the brain into its more mature state, which in turn would result in better breathing patterns. It is also interesting to note that breastfed infants tend to have higher levels of the hormone “progesterone” which stimulates breathing. To sum up, breast milk helps babies breathe better, and it can significantly reduce the risk of SIDS.

Another advantage of breastfeeding is when the milk happens to end up in the wrong place, particularly in the airways, it won’t irritate as much when compared to the artificial milk because as mentioned earlier, human milk is not a foreign body.

Sears mentioned one experimental animal study wherein introducing water or foreign milk into the upper airways can lead to “apnea,” or the condition when one suddenly stops breathing. When normal saline (a solution which is mostly similar to infant’s blood) or milk from the same animal species (e.g., a cow’s milk for a cow, a goat’s milk for a goat) was introduced in the airways, the cessation of breathing – which is a life-threatening situation – didn’t happen. This made the researchers of the study conclude that water or foreign milk can significantly increase the risk of apnea among infants, should the milk go in the wrong pipe.

  • Breast milk reduces the occurrence of milk reflux

Breast milk is more easily digested than artificial milk. Thus, breastfeeding infants tend to empty their stomach faster, making it less likely to reflux on their esophagus. When milk reflux happens, some of the milk may end up in the upper airway. This condition has an implication with what experts call an apparent life-threatening event, which can be a precursor of SIDS. Hence, reducing reflux means reducing the risk of SIDS.

  • Breastfeeding helps synchronize body systems

Sears believes that one missing link in the study of SIDS’ causative factors is that a baby at risk of SIDS has what he calls “disorganized physiology.” However, with breastfeeding, babies tend to sleep a lot easier, get in sync with their mother’s sleep-wake cycle, and produces a calming effect. Thus, reducing the risk of SIDS.

The Mother

How Does Breastfeeding Reduce The Risk Of SIDS

Apart from the ideas mentioned above, the significant reduction of SIDS can also be attributed to the mother’s increased awareness at night when breastfeeding. Many breastfeeding moms can swear by experience that they are more aware of the changes happening with their baby when they breastfeed at night.

One scientific explanation of this increase in “mother’s instinct” would be the enhanced levels of the maternal hormones oxytocin and prolactin. These hormones are produced while the baby is suckling at the breast. This also has something to do with the increased “touch time” or skin-to-skin contact while breastfeeding.

 The Method

How Does Breastfeeding Reduce The Risk Of SIDS

Another good addition to the beneficial effects of breastfeeding is that it can improve the baby ’s sucking and swallowing coordination due to constant practice (breastfeeding infants suck more frequently than bottle feeders). Premature babies, which are at a higher risk for SIDS, tend to learn this coordination faster while breastfeeding.

The manner of breastfeeding also makes it more likely for moms to place their babies on their back or lying to their side. Sleeping position is significant in lowering down the risk for SIDS.

In addition, a recent study found out that breastfeeding, either partial or exclusive, in the first 2 months of an infant’s life significantly decreased the risk for SIDS. Here’s a statement from one of the researchers, Kawai Tanabe, MPH, of the University of Virginia School of Medicine,

“These results are very powerful! Our study found that babies who are breastfed for at least two months have a significant reduction in their risk of dying from SIDS.”

Researcher Fern Hauck, MD, of the UVA School of Medicine and the UVA Children’s Hospital also noted,

“Breastfeeding for just two months reduces the risk of SIDS by almost half. The longer babies are breastfed, the greater the protection. The other important finding from our study is that any amount of breastfeeding reduces the risk of SIDS — in other words, both partial and exclusive breastfeeding appears to provide the same benefit.”

As we wait for more studies, the link between breastfeeding and the reduction of the risk for SIDS ends up to the point that breast milk is still best for babies as their primary source fo nutrition during their early years of life.

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