There are few things scarier for new parents than the threat of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), the sudden and unexplained death of an infant before his first birthday in which the immediate cause is not obvious. The risk of SIDS generally lessens as babies grow past the peak risk period of 0–6 months.
For decades, researchers have been working to identify factors that increase and decrease the risk of SIDS. Many, including the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), recognize breastfeeding as one of the factors that lowers the risk of SIDS. A 2017 study found that exclusive breastfeeding for the first 2 months of life helped reduce the risk of SIDS by 50 percent.
It's important to note that the relationship between breastfeeding and SIDS is dose dependent, meaning the more a baby breastfeeds, the greater the protection against SIDS. Therefore, the AAP encourages mothers to breastfeed as much as possible, for as long as they can to help reduce their baby's risk.
Reducing the risk of SIDS by breastfeeding
According to the “triple risk model,” SIDS occurs when a vulnerable infant, who is at a critical period of development (typically less than 1 year old), experiences a stressor. Most often, this occurs during sleep. Studies suggest breastfeeding reduces SIDS risk by improving a baby's overall health and reducing potential stressors. Ways in which breastfeeding is thought to reduce the risk of SIDS:
- Breastfeeding boosts brain development, particularly for the central nervous system, which is essential to respiratory control during sleep.
- Breastfeeding fights against illnesses. Oftentimes, babies who succumb to SIDS have had a “minor infection” in the days before death. Infants’ immune systems are immature, and breast milk helps to provide necessary antibodies to fight infections such as RSV, which can contribute to inflammation and lead to SIDS.
- Breastfeeding promotes safer sleep. A full night’s sleep may be a good goal for an older child or adult, but lengthy periods of deep sleep are not beneficial for infants. Rather, being able to arouse from sleep periodically (such as to nurse) reduces a baby’s risk of SIDS. Studies show that breastfed infants are more easily aroused from sleep than formula-fed babies.
- Breastfeeding boosts maternal awareness. The sustained mother-baby contact of breastfeeding can help to develop mothers’ sense of baby-reading, and cue her into signs of physiological distress. In its latest SIDS recommendation, the AAP encourages parents to place their baby’s crib or bassinet in the parent's bedroom for the first year (or at least six months), because room-sharing and being aware of the baby’s state throughout the day and night is critical to reducing the risk of SIDS. (Note that room-sharing is different than bed-sharing, which is not encouraged by the AAP; you can learn more about bed-sharing here.)
- Breastfeeding supports suck/swallow coordination. Breastfeeding helps to develop the muscles of the oral cavity and throat, helping to keep the airway open.
In addition to breastfeeding, you can help reduce your baby’s risk of SIDS by providing a safe sleep space. Have your baby’s crib or bassinet placed in your bedroom for the first year. Always place your baby on his back to sleep—whether during nap time or bedtime. And keep his sleep environment free of blankets, pillows, crib bumpers or other soft bedding that can increase the risk of suffocation.
For more about SIDS, click here.