A recent study found that breastfeeding for two months could nearly halve your baby's risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Here’s what new parents need to know about the link between breastfeeding and SIDS. 

Benefits of Breastfeeding Baby
Credit: Kaspars Grinvald/Shutterstock

Lowering an infant's risk for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is at the top of every parent's list. SIDS causes infants to die unexpectedly, often in their sleep and without any warning signs. Although cases have decreased after the launch of Safe to Sleep (formerly Back to Sleep) campaign in 1994, about 3,500 newborns still die suddenly and unexpectedly every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

While there’s no known cause of SIDS, experts have identified numerous risk factors, such as stomach-sleeping, co-sleeping, and exposure to secondhand smoke. They’ve also found that certain parental actions lower the odds of SIDS—including nursing your infant. So how does breastfeeding reduce the risk of SIDS? Read on to learn more about the latest studies and expert opinions.

A Study About Breastfeeding and SIDS

A November 2017 report out of the University of Virginia School of Medicine, published in Pediatrics, found that breastfeeding for at least two months decreases the risk of SIDS by nearly half. Mothers don't have to breastfeed exclusively to get the benefit, either.

"Breastfeeding for just two months reduces the risk of SIDS by almost half, and the longer babies are breastfed, the greater the protection," Fern Hauck, M.D., an associate professor at the UVA School of Medicine and the UVA Children's Hospital, says in a statement.

"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," she adds.

To determine the effects of breastfeeding on SIDS risk, the researchers analyzed eight major international studies that examined 2,259 cases of SIDS and 6,894 control infants where death did not occur. This large collective sample demonstrated the consistency of findings despite differing cultural behaviors across countries, and it provides convincing evidence of the reliability of the findings.

This isn't the first research to link breastfeeding with a lower risk of SIDS, but it is the first that specifies how long a child should be breastfed to receive the protection.

Why Does Breastfeeding Prevent SIDS? 

The exact link between breastfeeding and SIDS risk is unclear. However, experts have hypothesized the following connections:

  • Babies who nurse can wake up more easily than formula-fed infants. This is important, since SIDS rates might be higher among babies who have difficulty rousing when experiencing breathing problems.
  • Moms who breastfeed are less likely to smoke, and secondhand smoke exposure has been associated with SIDS, according to Steven A. Shapiro, D.O., chair of the Pediatrics Department at Abington–Jefferson Health.
  • Breastfeeding transfers antibodies from the mother to the baby to protect against certain viral infections. Some of these infections can increase a baby’s risk for SIDS.
  • Breast milk promotes brain development, which could possibly improve a baby’s ability to wake himself up earlier in life.

The Benefits of Breastfeeding

According to the CDC, more than eight in 10 mothers begin breastfeeding after birth. Many stop earlier than the six-month recommendation; only 51.8 percent of babies are still breastfeeding by that time. 

"This study supports what we have known for years…that there are many proven benefits of breastfeeding, some which have yet to be discovered," Laura Sarantinoudis-Jones, a lactation consultant from New Jersey, tells Parents.com. She says the report is a good reminder that women do not have to breastfeed exclusively for their children to receive health benefits.

"Any amount of breastfeeding is protective," Sarantinoudis-Jones adds. "Breastfeeding is not all or nothing. Every drop truly does count." The UVA researchers hope their findings will result in higher breastfeeding rates. (Of course, though, there’s nothing wrong with choosing to formula feed your infant for health or personal reasons!)