What About Contaminants in Breast Milk?

Two women were talking about contaminants in breast milk. One worried about being sick and that affecting her baby. She also worried about plastics and chemical residue. In awhile, they were worrying that stress while breastfeeding would have a bad effect on the baby. Yikes! So much to worry about that is stressful.

Let’s not diminish all the good things we as parents are doing or trying to do. There are a few things you needn’t worry about (less stress right there). There are some things you can take positive action to improve.

Illness While Breastfeeding
When the breastfeeding mother has flu, cold or some bug, her body responds with immune factors to fight off the illness. Those immune factors are passed along to your child through breast milk. You are actually helping your baby build his or her immune system.

When you pick up germs from your baby who is sick, your body responds to that then passes the immune factors to your baby. It’s a circle of support! You probably feel lousy though you’re not harming your child. (And there are many medications you can take while breastfeeding). Avoiding breast milk does not address the issue. Human breast milk is the only way to provide specific immune and growth factors to a human child.

Chemical residue in breast milk.
There are a few simple steps to reduce chemical residue in your system. One of the easiest ways is to eat Certified Organic food. If you eat ‘conventional’ produce, reduce chemical residue simply by peeling it first. That’s where most of the pesticide residue remains.

Use items or packaging that is BPA free. Even better, paper or glass are good alternatives. A good review of chemical exposure in our environment is the Environmental Working Group site: ewg.org.

An interesting and thorough review of contaminants in breast milk was published in Environmental Health Perspectives in 2008. In it, Miriam Labbok, a physician and epidemiologist stated “To date, no environmental contaminant, except in situations of acute poisoning, has been found to cause more harm to infants than does lack of breast-feeding,” She continued,  “I have seen no data that would argue against breastfeeding, even in the presence of today’s levels of environmental toxicants.”  Read the article here

An interesting, well-written book that examines that influence on our breast health is Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History by Florence Williams.

Stress in Your Life.
Mothers feel bad themselves and then worry that harms their baby. It’s essential to get the support you need so you can enjoy being a parent. Parents who feel bad definitely need to reach out. Simple things, like making eye contact and talking with your child, make a difference. Some research has shown how breastfeeding can actually help you (to a degree) with depression.

Stress does increase cortisol in our bodies. This hormone, part of our complex endocrine system, has many actions and effects on our bodies. Some studies show a correlation between high cortisol levels in the mother and higher cortisol levels in the breast milk. One study noted that those infants with more cortisol in the breast milk tended to be more fearful children.

An article like this will make you feel guilty. Let’s not generalize. Humans are socially complex beings. It has also been shown that KangarooMotherCare can reduce cortisol levels in infants. This is especially important for premature babies. Skin-to-skin contact and breastfeeding increases oxytocin levels (known as the “Love Hormone” or the Hormone of Social Bonding). There’s a lot of good in holding our babies.

There are enormous stresses: hurricanes, floods, being a refugee, living in violent surroundings. Babies with stressed mothers are influenced by the same situation as the adult. In these situations, at the very least, mothers can provide their warm embrace and clean, complete nutrition for their child. Give yourself credit for what you can do.

Here’s another concern. Where did that idea come from… that a breastfeeding mother is ‘contaminating’ or ‘harming’ the baby? That sounds like a ‘booby trap’ that undermines breastfeeding: misinformation that a woman’s body is inadequate.

Remember this. A woman’s body is finely tuned to grow and nourish her children. Finely tuned to the baby’s growing nutritional needs, to the developing immune system, to many subtle biological signals. It’s a very imperfect and upsetting world in which we live. What we really need is to make the environment clean and safe. Then breast milk will be ‘cleaner’ and everything else will be, too.

That’s a win-win situation for every body.

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