Friday the 28th of June is Red Nose Day, but behind the signature merchandise and upbeat fundraising activities, lays the devastating issue of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). According to the SIDS and Kids website, over 3500 families are affected by the tragedy of a sudden, unexpected infant or child death each year. Although there is much international research into SIDS, the cause largely remains unknown. (1) The risk of SIDS, however can be reduced by developing safe sleeping practices and ensuring a smoke free environment. (1) Further to this, much evidence shows that exclusively breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life reduces the risk of SIDS by more than 60%. (1, 2, 3)
Reducing the risk of SIDS
There are several mechanisms of breastfeeding and breast milk that are believed to be involved in reducing the risk of SIDS, including, protection against respiratory and gastrointestinal infection through a boosted immune system, improved coordination of breathing and swallowing and improved breathing overall due to reduced allergy responses, optimal brain development which ensures appropriate nervous impulses around the respiratory centre, and improvement and harmony in sleep/wake cycles. (3, 4)
Breast is the best choice
Unfortunately for many mothers, it is not a simple choice to breastfeed or not. For a variety of physiologically, social, emotional and cultural reasons many mothers experience difficulties in continuing to breastfeed. Exclusively breastfeeding during the first 6 months of life is particularly critical in not only reducing the risk of SIDS, but also in increasing the baby’s cognitive and emotional development and providing a host of other health benefits to mother and baby. (4) Although infant formula provides adequate nutrition, the unique and dynamic beneficial properties of breast milk cannot be completely mimicked. (4)
If not formula, then what?
In generations gone by a mother who was unable to feed her child for whatever reason would simply have a wet-nurse breastfeed the baby on her behalf, but with the introduction of infant formulas and risk of infectious disease, this practice is far from the common place it once was.
The idea of another woman feeding your child or sharing breast milk with your baby, probably makes some of you feel quiet uncomfortable, however due to the known benefits of breast milk a trend in ‘modern day wet nursing’ is emerging.
Breast Milk: banked, donated and shared
For the most part governments are well on board with the initiative of ‘modern day wet nursing.’ In Australia there are 4 established Breast Milk Banks which store, screen, pasteurise and distribute breast milk to those who need it, particularly premature infants. While in Brazil there are more than 200 Breast Milk Banks which have worked to see their infant mortality rate reduced by more than 73%. (5)
Unofficially there is also a global wide resurgence of communities that both share and donate breast milk. In almost every state and territory in Australia there is a chapter of Human Milk for Human Babies, which are networks thousands strong of families donating and receiving breast milk. These communities, although maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, are open and welcoming to anybody who wishes to be involved in ensuring babies are given the best nutrition possible.
Before making the decision to discontinue breastfeeding it is important to speak with a child health nurse, a paediatrician, or seek support from the Australian Breastfeeding Association.