Sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS, is a terrifying prospect for new parents. By definition, it's the unexplained death of a baby, and without knowing the cause, it can be daunting to try and prevent it. But a new study suggests that if you can keep it up for at least two months, breastfeeding could reduce SIDS risk by half, which is heartening for those looking for ways to protect their babies. Unfortunately, there's a lot that's still unknown, but every little bit helps, and if you're willing and able, breastfeeding may be one more way to keep your baby safe.
Researchers examined the data from eight studies, which included 2,267 cases of SIDS, and 6,837 control infants who did not die. They then compared which babies were breastfed, how long they were breastfed, and a variety of other risk factors. No correlation was found between SIDS protection and breastfeeding for less than two months, but babies who were breastfed for longer than two months were less likely to die from SIDS — and here's the best part — whether or not they were breastfed exclusively. That means that supplementing with formula is perfectly fine, and your baby will still be just as protected from SIDS as a baby who only receives breast milk.
The study also found that the longer a baby was breastfed, the lower their risk for SIDS, but that protection only appears to kick in after the two-month mark. "Breastfeeding, if it is to be protective, must continue for at least 2 months," the authors stressed. But when comparing exclusive and partial breastfeeding, there appeared to be no difference. That's great news for moms who aren't able to produce enough milk, and also those who would just prefer to sleep for longer than two hours at a time. Let your partner feed the baby, you need your rest!
Lead author John M.D. Thompson, Ph.D., of University of Auckland in New Zealand, told Reuters, "The peak age of SIDS is two to four months, so breastfeeding may need to continue into this apparently more vulnerable period to incur the protective effect." However, the study didn't examine how breastfeeding might affect SIDS; only what length of time is linked with a lower risk. While there is a correlation between breastfeeding and a reduced SIDS risk, it's still unknown if breastfeeding is actually the cause of the reduced risk. The study didn't analyze the socioeconomic statuses of the families involved, for example, and it's known that wealthy, well-educated women are more likely to breastfeed, so if socioeconomic status is a causal factor in SIDS risk, the breastfeeding link may just be coincidental.
According to Forbes, the prevailing theory is that three different factors contribute to SIDS risk. First, the age of the child (2 to 4 months, as Thompson said, is the riskiest period). Environmental triggers like exposure to cigarette smoke or unsafe sleeping arrangements are also thought to play a role, and finally, underlying medical conditions may also prevent some babies from being able to wake as easily as others. The authors of the study theorize that breastfeeding may help by benefiting babies' immune systems, or it might be that breastfed babies tend to wake more easily than those who aren't.
Not everyone is willing or able to breastfeed, though, and it's hardly a magic bullet. Luckily, there are several steps all parents can take to prevent SIDS, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Babies under 12 months should always be placed on their backs to sleep, in a crib with a firm mattress and a tight-fitting sheet. Blankets, pillows, bumper pads, and stuffed animals should never be used in a baby's crib. The AAP does not recommend bedside sleepers, in-bed sleepers, wedges, positioners, or cardiorespiratory monitors. Make sure your baby's immunizations are up to date, and make sure they get plenty of tummy time to strengthen those muscles. Finally, keep your baby's crib in your room if possible, and offer a pacifier, but don't push it if they're not interested. And if you want to breastfeed for two months or longer, it can't hurt.
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