Breastfeeding offers several benefits for mothers and their babies, especially in their physical and emotional development. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that mothers exclusively breastfeed infants for the first six months due to these benefits. There is evidence that breastfeeding protects babies against a variety of infections and diseases, helps promote a healthy weight, encourages brain development, and provides the ideal nutrition for infants. On top of these benefits, breastfeeding is also linked to lowering one’s risk of developing obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) later in life.
With OSA affecting nearly one billion people worldwide, adults everywhere are impacted by insufficient sleep due to disordered breathing. By making an effort to breastfeed your baby now—if possible—you could set your baby up for better breathing and sleep for the rest of their life. Keep reading to learn more about sleep apnea, how breastfeeding could help prevent its development, and signs that your baby might have a sleep-related breathing disorder like OSA.
What Is Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea is a sleep-related breathing disorder that involves breathing that repeatedly stops and starts throughout the night. These pauses in breathing can last for as long as a few seconds to even minutes, disrupting sleep and leading to excessive sleepiness or fatigue. There are two types of sleep apnea: central and OSA.
In central sleep apnea, the brain does not send the appropriate signals to the brain needed to breathe, which causes one to stop breathing. On the other hand, OSA is caused by a blockage in the upper airway that reduces or eliminates airflow.
On top of fatigue and excessive daytime sleepiness, sleep apnea has been associated with the following health concerns:
- Heart disease
- Memory problems, including amnesia of events
- Difficulty concentrating and slower reaction times
Sleep apnea can affect one’s well-being, lead to excessive sleepiness that hurts daily functioning, and worsen underlying conditions.
What Is the Connection Between Breastfeeding and Sleep Apnea?
Several studies have found a link between breastfeeding and sleep-disordered breathing, including OSA. According to one study, the intake of a mother’s milk over formula could cause a lower rate of allergic and respiratory diseases, which are possible contributors to the development of sleep apnea later in life.
Breastfeeding is also essential to the development of the swallowing process, proper alignment of teeth, and the shaping of the hard palate. Similarly, it can prevent orthodontic changes to the face, jaw, and airway caused by bottle-feeding. For example, bottles have been shown to deform dental arches, which stunt the growth of the mandible. This is significant because the underdevelopment of the jaw is one of the most common risk factors associated with OSA, as certain shapes of the roof of your mouth can cause the airway to collapse more easily.
By breastfeeding, you may be able to lower your baby’s risk of sleep apnea, as well as improve their oral health. On top of preventing potentially serious orthodontic changes, breastfeeding offers several additional benefits for your baby’s dental health:
- It aids in bite alignment.
- It reduces the risk of tooth decay and prevents the development of cavities.
- It promotes optimal jaw and tooth development.
- The milk protects against bacteria associated with cavity development.
What Are the Signs of Sleep Apnea in Babies?
Breastfeeding may also put you in a great position to notice potential signs of sleep apnea in your baby. Infants with sleep apnea experience reductions and pauses in breathing most frequently during REM sleep. Premature infants are at risk of having more breathing disorders because they have more REM sleep than full-term infants. While you are close to your baby—while breastfeeding or otherwise—look for signs of sleep apnea.
The following symptoms are associated with infant sleep apnea:
- Prolonged pauses in breathing, lasting 20 seconds or longer
- Related problems like low oxygen levels or a slow heartbeat
- Patterns of repeated pauses in breathing, lasting less than 20 seconds
Certain risk factors associated with infant sleep apnea may put some babies at a higher risk of developing it than others. For example, some underlying medical conditions can cause or make sleep apnea worse. Problems like acid reflux, infection, seizures, and a small upper airway can all play a role in developing the sleep disorder.
If you’re concerned that your infant may have a sleep-related breathing disorder like OSA, reach out to a dentist specializing in sleep and airway. Additionally, sleep centers that specialize in pediatrics are another good option to help you screen your baby for a sleep disorder. A medical professional will be able to help you not only diagnose any problems but also help you treat them.
Breastfeeding offers a variety of benefits for both you and your baby. Not only is breast milk full of essential nutrients, but choosing to breastfeed rather than bottle-feed can also lead to healthier jaw and tooth development. Reach out to your doctor or dentist for more information about the benefits of breastfeeding, and to educate yourself on sleep and airway dentistry, as well as the dangers of OSA.