The benefits of breastfeeding infants has long been known to be the most beneficial for infants. In new research, now it may also protect the risk of sudden death syndrome, which is one of the biggest fears for parents raising youngsters. Breastfeeding appears to reduce the risk of SIDS by up to 73% in a new study released this week.

Dr. Fern R. Hauck, an associate professor of family medicine and public health at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville explains:

"Breastfeeding has many benefits for mothers' and infants' health. This study shows another important reason that mothers should breastfeed their infants, and ideally, this should be exclusive. These results indicate that breast-feeding is strongly protective against SIDS. Exclusive breastfeeding confers the most protection."

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) claims the lives of about 2,300 infants a year in the United States, according to federal statistics.

So here are the basic facts from the research. The study showed that for infants who received any amount of breast milk for any time period, there was a 60% reduction in the risk of SIDS. When the researchers took into account other factors such as socioeconomic status, smoking and infant sleep position, the reduction in the risk of SIDS dropped to 45%.

However, when the researchers looked at the reduced risk of SIDS among infants who were exclusively breastfed, the risk was reduced by 73%.

Although the reasons for the association between breastfeeding and the reduced risk of SIDS is unclear, there are several theories. Breastfed infants have fewer bouts of diarrhea and upper and lower respiratory infections, which are associated with vulnerability to SIDS the research states. (see link below)

Even though many Americans have the mistaken idea that today's infant formulas are nearly identical to human milk and that they are "almost as good as breast milk", that is not true at all. Formula-fed babies are sicker, sick more often, and are more likely to die in infancy or childhood. Compared to exclusive and extended breastfed babies, formula-fed babies have a doubled overall infant death risk, and 4-fold risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

Peter Kinderman, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Liverpool, who was not involved in an associated study, said it was a good piece of research with important findings:

"Positive bonding between parent and child is known to be fantastically helpful for development. This is more evidence of the importance of breastfeeding and mother-baby attachment, not just for physical health but also for the psychological development of the child."

The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life, with solids gradually being introduced around this age when signs of readiness are shown. Supplemented breastfeeding is recommended until at least age two, as long as mother and child wish.

Moreover, there are benefits of breast milk to immune system at a time when infant's own immunity is still developing and the immunity the infant received from the mother is waning, which may also play a role in reducing the risk of SIDS, Hauck explained.

Sources: Pediatrics Journal, The British Medical Journal and The World Health Organization

Written by Sy Kraft