Hi mamas, I’m Stephanie Weight Hadfield, an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) and mom of 4. I’m here today to talk about why breastfeeding reduces the risk of SIDS. I hope it brings you more confidence as you face infant feeding and sleeping options!
Sudden Infant Death Syndrome
SIDS, or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, is a worry that strikes fear into the hearts of just about every parent. According to the CDC, SIDS is the sudden death of an infant less than 1 year of age that cannot be explained after a thorough investigation. In 2015, SIDS was given as the cause of death for about 1,600 U.S. babies (1). Although SIDS is different from smothering or suffocation, they are all often lumped together in the research and discussion, which can make it difficult to really understand what is going on.
While researchers still have a lot to learn about this tragic condition, multiple studies have found something that I’m very interested in as a lactation consultant: Breastfeeding decreases a baby’s risk of SIDS by 50% or more (2). The protection seems to be dose dependent: even small amounts of breastmilk offer some safety from SIDS, and exclusive breastfeeding offers the best risk reduction (3). Let’s take a look at the research to find out why breastfeeding reduces the risk of SIDS.
Why does breastfeeding make a difference?
We don’t know exactly why breastfeeding protects babies, but there are a few theories. First of all, illnesses like diarrhea and upper respiratory infections happen more often for babies who are not breastfed, and these minor illnesses have frequently been associated with SIDS (4). Another theory is that breastmilk provides optimal nutrition for brain development and this could help at-risk babies’ brains mature so that they have the normal response of gasping for air when they should.
The typical sleep patterns of breastfed babies might also offer some clues why breastfeeding reduces the risk of SIDS. Researchers have found that breastfed babies generally sleep for shorter stretches and are a lot easier to wake from active sleep than non-breastfed babies (5,6). Shorter sleep stretches and being more easily woken could be another piece of the protection puzzle.
If just hearing the news that breastfed babies have shorter sleep stretches makes you feel more exhausted, listen up: Exclusively breastfeeding mothers (and their partners) get more sleep and spend more time in deep sleep than mothers who are not breastfeeding, even though their babies tend to wake more frequently at night (7,8). It’s pretty fantastic that breastfeeding can help you get more rest AND protect your baby at the same time.
What causes SIDS?
Scientists still don’t know exactly why some babies die without explanation, but recent research points to the possibility of brain stem abnormalities that prevent some babies from being able to rouse from sleep and gasp for air when their blood oxygen levels are too low. (9,10,11). These babies seem to be in more danger when other risk factors for SIDS are present and babies are younger than 6 months. The four biggest risk factors are (12):
- household smoking
- putting a baby on his or her stomach for sleep
- leaving a sleeping baby unattended
- formula feeding
There is no way to know ahead of time if your baby has the condition researchers describe, so the best way to protect babies is for all parents to take measures to reduce the most common and avoidable risk factors:
- If you smoke, try to quit. At the very least, don’t allow anyone to smoke inside your house or car or around your baby.
- Always put your baby on his or her back to sleep.
- Keep your baby close at night. There are many different sleeping arrangements that can keep your baby close (and safe) at night, which can also make nighttime feedings easier and help you get more rest (13):
- A bassinet or cradle next to your bed
- Baby’s crib attached to your bed in a “side-car” arrangement
- A “co-sleeper” bed that attaches to your bed
- Baby put to sleep on a mattress on the floor away from the walls in your room, so you can lie down and sleep while breastfeeding the baby and return to your own bed after the baby goes back to sleep.
- Baby sleeps in your bed, either for part of the night– after he or she awakens the first time– or for the whole night. Read our article on How to Co-sleep Safely for more information.
- Breastfeed. The #1 rule is always feed the baby, so if formula is necessary, use it. If it’s not necessary, try to avoid it. Remember that the more of your milk your baby gets, the lower the risk of SIDS. Some breastfeeding is definitely better than none. A visit with a lactation consultant (IBCLC) can help you maximize the amount of your milk that your baby will get. Lactation Link’s IBCLCs are available for home and hospital visits for families in our geographic area and secure video e-consults for families everywhere else. We are always happy to support mothers with their breastfeeding concerns.
Hopefully this article gives you a little bit of peace of mind. Information like this is exactly why I’m so passionate about supporting families with feeding their babies. Breastfeeding isn’t just a lifestyle choice, or another way to get food into babies, it is the biological norm for nurturing babies and supporting their overall growth and development and helps make healthy families and communities.
Here at Lactation Link, we want to support you! Our breastfeeding video courses can help you get a great start to your breastfeeding relationship, and our lactation consultants are available to help you with any concerns that pop up along the way. Let us help you reach your breastfeeding goals, whatever they may be.
Thanks for stopping by,
Stephanie Weight Hadfield, BS, IBCLC
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(1) Centers for Disease Control (2017, February 1). Sudden Unexpected Infant Death and
Sudden Infant Death Syndrome: Data and Statistics. Retrieved from
(2) Hauck, F.R., Thompson, J.M., Tanabe, K.O., et al. Breastfeeding and reduced risk of sudden
infant death syndrome: a meta-analysis. Pediatrics 128, no.1 (2011): 103-110.
(3) McVea, K. L. S. P., Turner, P. D., & Peppler, D. K. (2000). The role of breastfeeding in
sudden infant death syndrome. Journal of Human Lactation, 16 13-20
(4) Dujits, L., Jaddoe, V. W., Hofman, A., & Moll, H. A. (2010). Prolonged and exclusive
breastfeeding reduces the risk of infectious diseases in infancy. Pediatrics, 126, e18-e25
(5) Quillin, S. I., & Glenn, L. L. (2004) Interaction between feeding method and co-sleeping on
maternal-newborn sleep. Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic, and Neonatal Nursing,
(6) Ball, H. L. (2003). Breastfeeding, bed-sharing, and infant sleep. Birth, 3 30(3), 181-188.
(7) Doan, T., Gardiner, A., Gay, C. L., & Lee, K. A. (2007). Breastfeeding increases sleep
duration of new parents. Journal of Perinatal and Neonatal Nursing. 21(3), 200-206.
(8) Blyton, D. M., Sullivan, C. E., and Edwards, N. (2002). Lactation is associated with an
increase in slow-wave sleep in women. Journal of Sleep Research, 11(4), 297-303.
(9) Kinney, H. C. (2005). Abnormalities of the brainstem serotonergic system in the sudden
infant death syndrome: A review. Pediatric and Developmental Pathology, 8, 507-524.
(10) Kinney, H. C., Randall, L. L., Sleeper, L. A., et al. (2003). Serotonergenic brainstem
abnormalities in Northern Plains Indians with the sudden infant death syndrome. Journal
of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology, 62, 1178-1191.
(11) Paterson, D. S., Trachtenberg, F. L., Thompson, E. G., et al. (2006). Multiple
serotonergenic brainstem abnormalities in sudden infant death syndrome. Journal of the American Medical Association, 296, 2124-2132.
(12) Moon, R.Y., et al. SIDS and other sleep-related infant deaths; expansion of
recommendations for a safe infant sleeping environment. Pediatrics 128, no.5 (2011):
(13) Mohrbacher, N. (2010) Breastfeeding answers made simple: A guide for helping mothers.
Amarillo, TX: Hale.