According to research published in the latest issue Pediatrics, babies who are breastfed – especially those exclusively fed breast milk— are less likely to die of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
Researchers analyzed data from 18 studies and found that exclusively breastfed babies had a 70% lower incidence of SIDS than formula-fed babies; babies who were breastfed for some period of time had a 60% reduced chance of SIDS.
The authors of the study make clear that this does not prove that breast milk reduces the risk of SIDS but they consider other explanations unlikely. Two possible reasons breastfeeding might help: breastfed babies might not sleep quite so heavily and therefore be less prone to breathing/arousal issues. (This could tie in with research suggesting that babies who sleep near their moms have a lower risk of SIDS–the American Academy of Pediatricians recommends that infants sleep in the same room as mom). The other possibility is that breastfeeding boosts the baby’s immune system and protects against infection/sickness/arousal problems.
According to the Institute of Medicine here are the risk factors for SIDS:
There is… a greater rate of SIDS among Native and African Americans.The following have been linked to an increased risk of SIDS:
Babies who sleep on their stomachs
Babies who are around cigarette smoke while in the womb or after being born
Babies who sleep in the same bed as their parents
Babies who have soft bedding in the crib
Multiple birth babies (being a twin, triplet, etc.)
Babies who have a brother or sister who had SIDS
Mothers who smoke or use illegal drugs
Short time period between pregnancies
Late or no prenatal care
Situations of poverty
SIDS affects boys more often than girls. While studies show that babies with the above risk factors are more likely to be affected, the impact or importance of each factor is not well-defined or understood.
SIDS research can be confusing partly because the actual definition of SIDS varies from state to state. While there’s some exciting new research coming out about how SIDS may be explained by an arousal disorder related to brain chemistry, there’s also a lot of swirling, frightening information going around. It seems that the definition of SIDS can encompass suffocation. And even if we wanted to separate these two categories– which I think we should– it can be hard to do.
But getting back to the breastfeeding. Note that many of the at-risk groups on the above list are also groups less likely to breastfeed: Teens, poor women, illicit drug-users, women without access to good prenatal care and education. So is it the breastfeeding that’s helping or just that older, well-off, non-drug-addicted, educated and supported parents are more likely to nurse for some period of time AND more likely to buy a safe, nice firm mattress and not fill the the baby’s room with cigarette smoke, etc. etc.
Sometimes I wonder if Public Service Announcements about SIDS shouldn’t just say: End Poverty.
And they shouldn’t be plastered in the subway, but in the Congressional latrine.
Or at least: Give more support to mothers. Offer better preventative health care to poor people and free drug treatment centers to pregnant women.
I’m all for breastfeeding and I’m enthusiastic about this new research. I generally think that if you’re nursing you are pretty responsive at night if only because your breasts fill up and signal you to wake up and empty them. Mom and baby are in synch in this way and other ways, so perhaps that really does help. But perhaps in this case, the link is more correlation than causation? This magical elixir may be a baby’s perfect food, but can it cure gross class inequalities? Just sayin’.