Ever since alternatives to mother's milk arrived on the market, we have turned what should be a natural part of life into an endless controversy.
New research confirms that breastfeeding for two to four months of a newborn's life can significantly reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
Cause of cot death unknown
But the study also found moms don't need to breastfeed exclusively to reap that benefit. Even partial breastfeeding will do, the 20-region study found.
The study was published online in the journal Pediatrics.
SIDS, also known as cot death, is most common in infants between the ages of two and four months, but may occur in younger and much older infants. While there are risk factors, the causes for cot death aren't exactly known.
Partial vs. exclusive breastfeeding
"What is, perhaps, surprising is that there does not appear to be any benefit of exclusive breastfeeding over partial breastfeeding in relation to SIDS, though there are many other benefits associated with exclusive breastfeeding," explained study author John Thompson, from New Zealand's University of Auckland.
The analysis included research from eight major international studies. The researchers reviewed over 2 200 SIDS case patients and over 6 800 "control" infants. There was great variability in the rates of any breastfeeding and exclusive breastfeeding, the findings showed.
While the research concluded that breastfeeding for at least two months was associated with half the risk of SIDS, breastfeeding for four months provided even greater protection, and continuing after that time provided further small increases.
"As the peak incidence of SIDS is from two to four months, this may be the most critical period in terms of the protective effect of breastfeeding," Thompson said.
Some breast milk better than none
For moms who struggle with breastfeeding, this research may provide a great comfort, knowing that some breast milk is better than none, said Dr Jennifer Kurtz. She is chief of neonatology at Long Island Jewish Forest Hills in New York City.
"A lot of moms really struggle with breastfeeding, and after those first two months they may not be able to exclusively breastfeed," Kurtz explained.
"Many don't have great milk supplies to begin with, and as the baby grows they need more milk and the moms aren't able to keep up with the demand," she said.
"Or, moms may also struggle if they need to go back to work. For a lot of working women it's stressful to carry a pump and create a schedule. With some jobs it's not easy to set aside time to pump, and it really becomes a challenge," Kurtz added.
It's still unclear how breastfeeding might offer protective effects against SIDS, but there are several theories, the study authors said.
Some research has indicated that breastfed infants are more easily aroused from sleep than formula-fed infants, which might help them to wake if they're having trouble breathing.
Differences have also been found in a mother's response to her infant's behavioural cues, depending on feeding mode, which may also affect the baby's sleep and arousal patterns.
Additionally, research has shown that breastfeeding provides immune benefits that help prevent viral infections. Such infections are associated with an increased risk of SIDS, the study authors said.
Whatever the reason, "this (study) provides very strong evidence of the benefits of breastfeeding in relation to the protective effects with SIDS," Thompson noted.
"This will hopefully provide more emphasis on public health efforts to increase the initiation and continuation of breastfeeding around the world," he added.
A recent South African study shows that the demographic profiles of infants dying from SIDS in this country is in
keeping with international publications.
Many benefits of breastfeeding
Both Thompson and Kurtz pointed out that while breastfeeding is preferable for the first four months to help decrease the risk of SIDS, it shouldn't stop there, if possible.
They advised following the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendations that breastfeeding continue for at least 12 months, and thereafter for as long as mother and baby desire.
The same applies in South Africa, and a previous Health24 article points out that breast milk alone is the ideal nourishment for infants for the first six months of their lives, because it contains all the nutrients, antibodies and hormones that a baby needs to thrive.
"Breastfeeding is good for many reasons," Kurtz said. "You are passing on immunoglobulins for children that help prevent them from getting illnesses, it's a great bonding experience, and children that are breastfed are less likely to be obese or get diabetes."
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