Break Out the Sheepskin: Study Finds Babies Who Sleep on Animal Skins Are Less Likely to Develop Asthma

Sheepskins are pesticide-free, organic, and excellent for temperature regulation — but are they right for baby? (Photo: Pelevina Ksinia/Shutterstock).

New parents get loads of advice on everything from feeding to dressing to swaddling. But no category brings more unsolicited — or solicited — counsel than that of babies and sleep. Do they need a crib or a bassinet? And what about cosleeping in your bed? Should they be warm or cool or dressed warmly but without blankets? Should their mattresses be firm or soft or softly firm and without any chemical off-gassing?

Got all of that?

No here's one more piece of advice to add to the baby/sleep puzzle: a new study has found that babies who sleep on animal skins are less likely to develop asthma. Oh, but some health experts also warn that babies shouldn't sleep on any soft bedding.

Figure that one out!

Benefits of Sheepskin

According to a recent story in SF Gate, it's common practice in Germany for parents to place a sheepskin in their baby's bedding. It's soft, it's pesticide-free, and it's good at regulating temperature — keeping babies cool in the summer and warm and cozy in the winter. Thanks to the availability of sheepskin at the uber-chic retailer IKEA, the idea has caught on here in the U.S.

That's good news, say the experts, who point to a recent study presented at the European Respiratory Society International Congress that found that babies who sleep on animal fur such as sheepskins in the first three months have a decreased risk for asthma at age 10. These kids also experience less incidence of hay fever and wheezing. The theory, according to researchers, is that animal fur is loaded with beneficial microscopic organisms that help to bolster a baby's immune system.

If this theory sounds familiar, it's because it is. It's the standing tenet of the hygiene hypothesis that experts have been arguing about for 25 years — that when babies are exposed to small quantities of germs and bacteria at a young age, they are more likely to have stronger immune systems as they get older.

Dangers of Sheepskin

But not all health experts are praising this new study. Many are worried about the correlation between SIDS, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, and babies who sleep in soft bedding.

“We do not recommend that babies sleep on sheepskins, as some of the first studies on SIDS demonstrated that sleeping on sheepskins increased the risk for SIDS,” says Washington, D.C. pediatrician Dr. Rachel Moon, in an interview with SF Gate. Moon helped develop the safe sleeping guidelines for the American Academy of Pediatrics. “If the children are older than 1 year of age, I have no problem with it. Otherwise, I would be very leery of it.”

These experts argue that a sheepskin liner for the stroller or car seat or a sheepskin nursery rug might be better ways to expose babies to animal skins without increasing their risk for SIDS.