Breastfeeding for at least two months slashes babies’ risk of cot death almost in half, according to new research.
And the longer they are nursed the greater the protection, say scientists.
The finding adds to previous studies suggesting mother’s milk helps prevent sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
But the international study is the first to determine the duration needed.
The finding by the University of Virginia adds to previous studies suggesting mother’s milk helps prevent sudden infant death syndrome (file image)
Co author Dr Kawai Tanabe, of the University of Virginia, said: ‘These results are very powerful!
‘Our study found babies who are breastfed for at least two months have a significant reduction in their risk of dying from SIDS.
‘Breastfeeding is beneficial for so many reasons, and this is really an important one.’
In the US, about 3,700 babies died suddenly and unexpectedly in 2015, the most recent year for which data is available. Around 1,600 were identified as cot deaths. In the UK, just under 300 babies die suddenly and unexpectedly every year.
Despite a considerable decline in such tragedies over the past 20 years, it remains the leading cause of death among babies between a month and a year old.
The NHS says although the statistic may sound alarming, SIDS is rare and the risk of a baby dying from it is low.
Dr Tanabe and colleagues also found exclusive breastfeeding is not necessary for a baby to get the benefit – good news for mothers who can’t or choose not to rely solely on it.
After accounting for factors that could distort the results, they showed breastfeeding for at least two months significantly reduced risk. But less than this did not.
Study leader Professor ern Hauck, of the University of Virginia Children’s Hospital, said: ‘Breastfeeding for just two months reduces the risk of SIDS by almost half, and the longer babies are breastfed, the greater the protection.
‘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.’
To determine the effects of breastfeeding, the researchers pooled data from eight major studies across the world involving 2,259 SIDS cases and 6,894 infants where death did not occur.
The large collective sample demonstrated the consistency of the findings despite differing cultural behaviors, providing convincing evidence of their reliability.
Based on their results, the researchers are calling for ‘ongoing concerted efforts’ to increase rates of breastfeeding around the world.
Data from 2007 showed a quarter of US babies had never been breastfed, the researchers report.
The World Health Organisation has established a goal of having more than half of infants worldwide being breastfed exclusively for at least six months by 2025.
Researcher Dr Rachel Moon, also of the University of Virginia, added: ‘It Is great for mothers to know that breastfeeding for at least two months provides such a strong protective effect against SIDS.
‘We strongly support international and national efforts to promote breastfeeding.’
It remains unclear why breastfeeding protects against SIDS, though the researchers cite factors such immune benefits and effects on infant sleeping patterns as possible mechanisms.
An earlier study of more than 1,000 babies in in Sweden found those who had been breastfed for less than eight weeks were up to five times more likely to die from cot death compared with those fed naturally by their mother for four months or more.
That team said it was possible breastfed infants had a lower risk of infection. Frequent feeding of the infant, and the resultant closer contact between mother and child, may also decrease the risk, they added.
Most cot deaths happen during the first six months of a baby’s life. Infants born prematurely or with a low birthweight are at greater risk. SIDS also tends to be slightly more common in baby boys.
The NHS says parents can reduce the risk of SIDS by not smoking while pregnant or after the baby is born, and always placing the baby on their back when they sleep.
The underlying reasons for SIDS have remained a mystery, even after decades of study.
Breastfeeding provides a raft of other health benefits for a baby including reducing risk of infections, diarrhoea and vomiting, childhood leukaemia, type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease in adulthood.
It has even been shown to boost a child’s IQ.