Thankfully, SIDS (or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, the unexplained death of a child age 1 or under), isn’t common. But each year, thousands of parents lose their babies because of it. The CDC estimates that in 2015 alone, 1,600 babies died of SIDS, which is absolutely heartbreaking. So, it’s no wonder parents of infants are often extremely concerned about its risks, and want to do everything in their power to protect their babies from it.
For a while now, major health organizations like Academy of American Pediatrics (AAP) have been giving out sound advice for parents about how to reduce potential SIDS risks, including practicing safe sleep (i.e., babies must sleep on their backs, on a firm mattress); making sure your baby does not become overheated; living in a smoke-free environment; scheduling your well visits and vaccinations; and breastfeeding your baby “as much and for as long as you can.”
And now, a sweeping and comprehensive new study from the University of Virginia School of Medicine wants to take that last bit of advice a step further, and clarify what breastfeeding “as much and for as long as you can,” really means when it comes to SIDS protection. The fact is, breastfeeding doesn’t come easily for all mothers, and although most mothers start off breastfeeding right after birth, stats show that only about half of all mothers are still doing it by the six-month mark.
For mothers who have struggled with breastfeeding, the research from UVA might calm your mind a little. The researchers found that breastfeeding for as little as two months can have profound SIDS protection for your little ones, cutting their risk almost in half. Not only that, but you don’t have to breastfeed exclusively to receive this benefit: any amount of breast milk helps.
“These results are very powerful!” said Kawai Tanabe, a researcher from the University of Virginia School of Medicine, in a press release. “Our study found that babies who are breastfed for at least two months have a significant reduction in their risk of dying from SIDS. Breastfeeding is beneficial for so many reasons, and this is really an important one.”
Really awesome, right? The research is particularly groundbreaking because although it’s been known for some time that breastfeeding is protective against SIDS, the exact timing and duration have not been researched before. And the research indicates that breastfeeding for that two-month time period actually affords babies significant protection, whereas breastfeeding for less time does not.
“Breastfeeding for just two months reduces the risk of SIDS by almost half, and the longer babies are breastfed, the greater the protection,” added Fern Hauck, MD, of the UVA School of Medicine. “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 appear to provide the same benefit.”
This is great news, especially for mothers who are unable to breastfeed fully, or who have chosen to combine formula feeding with breastfeeding. Moms who need to pump or have be separated from their babies early on can feel reassured that every ounce of breast milk they provide for their baby can make a difference.
The researchers came to these conclusions by analyzing eight international studies that looked at 2,259 cases of SIDS and 6,894 cases where babies did not die of SIDS (control cases). The fact that the researchers looked at cases worldwide controlled for variants like cultural behaviors, thus making the findings that much more reliable and convincing.
Although the findings did not indicate exactly why breastfeeding protects these infants, researchers hypothesize that it has something to do with breastfeeding’s incredible immune protections and effect on sleep patterns. Overall, the researchers are calling for more research about this phenomenon — and to make it a priority in the healthcare industry that moms are supported in their breastfeeding efforts across the board.
“It’s great for mothers to know that breastfeeding for at least two months provides such a strong protective effect against SIDS,” said Rachel Moon, doctor at UVA School of Medicine and UVA Children’s Hospital. “We strongly support international and national efforts to promote breastfeeding.”
Yes: It’s one thing to say that all new mothers should breastfeed for at least two months, but it’s quite another to offer mother adequate support to do so. After all, how is a mom to meet this goal when she is rushed back to work two weeks after birth (yes, this really happens, sadly)? Or when she is unable to find a lactation consultant she can afford, or a doctor who takes her breastfeeding concerns seriously? These are all things that need to be addressed, and hopefully new positive breastfeeding research like this can help move us in the direction of more resources and support for moms in their breastfeeding efforts.
Either way, this bit of SIDS research is awesome and noteworthy because it offers new parents an actionable way that they can offer an extra bit of protection to their babies. And it assures mothers everywhere that breastfeeding can be beneficial to babies however you are able to fit it into your life — and that every drop truly does count.