Ask the Experts: Breastfeeding and breathing benefits for your baby

By Published On: February 13th, 2012

This month we’re asking professionals in the know to share […]

This month we’re asking professionals in the know to share their knowledge about breastfeeding. This week, Nina Shapiro, MD, Director of Pediatric Otolaryngology, Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA and author of Take A Deep Breath: Clear the Air for the Health of Your Child explains how breastfeeding benefits reach as far as your baby’s breathing health.

Clearing the air for your newborn: Breastfeeding can help
In a perfect world, breastfeeding would be easy and come naturally to everyone, and all newborns would be exclusively breastfed for the first year of life. This is, of course, not a perfect world, and the debate on breastfeeding has become political, medical, and, even worse, personal. The benefits of breastfeeding are in-numerous, but advocates can get a bit carried away with making the non-breastfeeding mom feel anything but perfect. I cringe when I see moms reluctant to tell me that they are bottle-feeding their baby. This is fine! It’s more than fine! You are lovingly nourishing and bonding with your baby, no matter how they are being fed. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. That said, I truly feel that breastfeeding is worth giving a try, and I encourage parents to stick with it just a bit longer before they decide to throw in the … well, burp cloth.
One of the potentially unrecognized benefits of breastfeeding is how it can benefit your baby’s breathing. There are a few possible explanations for this: One has to do with the increased level of something called ‘immunoglobulins’ contained in breast milk. These chemicals are sparse in babies, are an important component of the immune system, and help prevent and fight illnesses. These extra immunoglobulins from mom help your baby fight off infections, even before the baby’s received their first immunizations.
Breastfed babies tend to get fewer colds, and are less congested, likely due to their boosted immune system from breast milk. This may help explain why breastfed babies have a lower incidence of SIDS, or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. SIDS has been found to occur more commonly in babies with bad colds. This benefit of fewer colds obviously carries through to babies who drink pumped breast milk from a bottle.
Another benefit that breastfeeding may have on your baby’s breathing is that during the actual act of breastfeeding, your baby is more upright than a baby who is being fed from a bottle. The upright position minimizes the chance that the milk they swallow will come back up to the back of the throat, and also minimizes the chance that acid and fluids from their stomach come back up. These events, called ‘gastroesophageal reflux’, can cause noisy breathing and congestion, especially in newborns.
A long-term physical benefit of breastfeeding is related to breathing later in childhood. Some studies have shown that babies who were breastfed in the first months of life (ideally up to age 5 months) had a decreased likelihood of developing snoring or sleep apnea as toddlers. The explanation for this finding is still unclear, but there are two possible reasons. One has to do with acquiring a ‘stronger’ immune system, from mom’s milk, with resultant less chronic congestion. Another possible reason is that babies who breastfeed use a lot more effort from their throat, tongue, and neck muscles to suck compared with those taking a bottle (of formula or breast milk). This sucking action may strengthen the muscles of the throat and upper airway, and this strength may make it less likely for their throats to become blocked as older kids.
So, yes, breathing benefits are yet another reason why we purport that ‘breast is best’. But while I am a firm advocate of breastfeeding, if, for WHATEVER reason you don’t, please don’t hyperventilate over it.
Nina Shapiro, MD is the Director of Pediatric Ear, Nose, and Throat at the Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA, and Associate Professor of Surgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. A sought-after expert in the media, she is a regular guest on CBS’ The Doctors and has also appeared on The Early Show, Extra TV LifeChangers,, NBC News, and NPR.
 She is the author of Take A Deep Breath: Clear the Air for the Health of Your Child and editor of the Handbook of Pediatric Otolaryngology: A Practical Guide for the Evaluation and Management of Ear, Nose, and Throat Disorders in Children.