June 12, 2007 -- Breast-feeding proponents have already extolled the various benefits of keeping babies off the bottle, saying it results not only in more robust immune systems and healthier lungs, but brings anti-obesity advantages.
Now, they may have yet another benefit to brag about -- a lower likelihood of a breast-fed child developing sleep-related breathing disorders, such as sleep apnea and snoring.
Breast-feeding beyond two months also showed promise in reducing the severity of the symptoms seen with certain breathing problems, according to the researchers.
"We saw real benefits in children who were breast-fed up to five months, and some showed results for being breast-fed up to one year," says lead author Hawley Montgomery-Downs, associate professor of psychology at the University of West Virginia.
In a report released Monday at the annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies, 197 parents completed a survey about breast-feeding habits while their children participated in an overnight sleep study.
The University of West Virginia researchers found that children who were breast-fed for at least two months as infants had lower rates of sleep-related breathing disorders.
Of special concern to pediatricians is childhood sleep apnea. In this condition, infants or children stop breathing while they are asleep, which can lead to disrupted sleep and eventually brain damage.
"Childhood obstructive sleep apnea is a real problem," says Dr. John Herman, director of the Sleep Disorders Center for Children at Children's Medical Center in Dallas.
"If it can be avoided, or its odds reduced, it saves some parents the hassle of having to deal with listening to their child snore, telling their pediatrician, having their child go through a sleep study, and probably having upper airway surgery."
Other children's health experts not affiliated with the study agree that the findings suggest new mothers may be better off breast-feeding their kids.
"This study alerts parents that breast-feeding should always be considered, both for the short-term and long-term benefits when deciding how to feed your baby," says Jodi Mindell, associate director of the Sleep Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
"It also encourages parents to continue to breast-feed past two months."
But why does breast-feeding have this effect?
The researchers say there are two possible explanations for the link between breast-feeding and fewer sleep-related breathing problems in children.
One is that the special components of breast milk give protection against exposure to viruses, which in turn leads to a stronger immune system.
"The other possibility," says Montgomery-Downs, "is that the actual act of breast-feeding itself -- sucking on a breast -- helps develop better bone structure. For infants who breast-feed, there's more space in the upper airway for breathing, especially during sleeping."
The findings could be far-reaching. One out of four infants and children experiences sleep-related breathing disorders, from simple snoring to potentially dangerous sleep apnea. These complications occur when the airway is partially blocked during sleep, due to inflammation or some other obstruction.
Children's performance in school, behavior and even cognitive development can suffer because of these disorders.
The authors of the study admit that while there is still more research to be done on this topic, the study offers "just one more bit of evidence that breast-feeding is very important," says Montgomery-Downs.