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Can You Prevent SIDS and Other Infant Syndromes By Breastfeeding?

Breast milk works best for babies from a nutritional standpoint -- not even formula manufacturers argue that point. But superb nutrition isn't the only reason to consider breastfeeding. Breastfed babies may benefit from breast milk in a number of other areas, including a decreased risk of sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS, and other illnesses. Breastfeeding won't serve as a guarantee against illness, though. Breastfeeding also won't affect a birth defect or genetic disorder that occurs before birth.

Understanding Sudden Infant Death Syndrome

SIDS is one type of sudden unexpected infant death, or SUID, a tragedy that affects around 4,000 babies each year, according to statistics collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The leading causes of death in babies age 1 to 12 months, SIDS isn't the same thing as other potential causes of SUID, such as accidental suffocation or asphyxiation -- lack of oxygen. The CDC defines SIDS as the sudden death of a baby under age 1 year for which no cause is found. The peak age for SIDS is between 2 and 4 months, the American Academy of Pediatrics notes.

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Reduced Risk of SIDS in Breastfed Babies

Breastfed babies have a lower incidence of SIDS. In fact, breastfeeding your baby for the first 6 months of life can reduce the risk of SIDS by up to 64 percent, the American Academy of Pediatrics observes. Breastfeeding exclusively -- which means not giving any supplemental bottles or solid foods -- for up to age 6 months gives the best protection against SIDS. Breastfeeding for longer also appears to convey better protection against SIDS than breastfeeding for just a few weeks or months.

Possible Reasons Why Breastfeeding Helps

It's not known exactly why this breastfed babies have a lower rate of SIDS, but several factors might contribute. "Factors such as immune system development, better breathing, and better brain development in breastfed babies may help protect against SIDS," says certified lactation consultant Shirley Donato, of Virtua Memorial Hospital in Mount Holly, New Jersey.

This registered nurse adds another possible factor, although sleep-deprived parents might not always appreciate it. "Many experts feel that the lighter sleep patterns of a breastfeeding infant help the baby to arouse more easily, which can protect against SIDS," Donato notes. The period of lighter sleeping also coincides with the time period during which SIDS deaths occur most commonly -- between 2 and 4 months.

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Facts to Consider

While risk studies typically describe breastfeeding as a way to reduce SIDS, the investigations look at a number of factors, rather than simply studying breastfeeding as a single factor. For example, the risk of SIDS is higher in low-income families, where breastfeeding is also less common, which makes it difficult to determine the part each play. It's also not possible to differentiate between infant death from smothering and from SIDS. When you breastfeed, co-sleeping might seem easier, but soft bedding present a smothering risk for your baby. Set up a co-sleeper that provides a separate spot for your baby right next to you but not lying on your bed, and always put your baby on his back to sleep to reduce the risk of SUID.

Image via ASIFE/iStock/Getty Images

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