Category Archives: Safe breastfeeding

Good news/bad news or environmental contamination of breastmilk

You may have heard in the news that mothers’ milk is contaminated with toxic chemicals. It is true. It is also true that everyone agrees that breastmilk is the first choice food for babies. All major public health organizations promote breastfeeding. Even though we live in a world where harmful chemicals are in our environment and in our bodies and in our breastmilk, breastfeeding is still the first choice food. Even when a mother’s milk is known to contain particular contaminants, breastfeeding is still almost always the best choice for her baby.

Unfortunately we know that mothers’ milk is contaminated with a long list of harmful chemicals (persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and heavy metals are most often mentioned). Breastmilk is contaminated because mothers are exposed through what they eat, drink, breathe and touch. The fact that these chemicals appear in mothers’ milk is a reminder that mothers (and all people) are exposed. Steps to protect breastmilk are the same steps that are needed to protect everyone. Rather than thinking of breastmilk as a separate problem, we need to think about it as one small facet of the bigger problem. While all of us are exposed to toxic chemicals, babies are particularly vulnerable to the effects of many of these chemicals. As part of taking care of their future health, it is important to stop ignoring or accepting this contamination of their food.

While we know that babies do best with breastmilk, they would almost certainly be healthier in the long run if there were fewer harmful chemicals in that milk. So what can families do to give their babies the healthiest start on life that they can?

1) Become politically active because we can not protect just our own family. Some chemicals that are found in breastmilk got into the environment when they were used in another country. Many chemicals are in the water and air. An individual mother will not be able to stop all of her exposures with her individual lifestyle choices. We have to all work together to find alternatives and limit the ability of companies and individuals to expose all of us to harmful chemicals. When your babies are small it can be hard to find the time to be an activist. A good starting place is to donate to reputable environmental organizations and then follow up on any easy action steps they send to you. Some possible organizations are Environmental Working Group, League of Conservation Voters, Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund, Physicians for Social Responsibility.

2) There are some lifestyle choices that can decrease chemicals that a mother (and her breastmilk) are exposed to. This is a topic where there are always new recommendations and new information. An easy way for new parents to stay on top of research and recommendations is to check helpful websites like the Planned Parenthood Green Choices, the Environmental Working Group guides to personal care products, water, and produce, or the National Library of Medicine Household Products database. There is so much information here that it is easy to become overwhelmed. It is a good idea to work on one thing at a time, choosing what is manageable. If the idea of looking at these websites is overwhelming, take a look at the list of ideas at the end of this essay – then look up that topic on one of the websites and make their suggestions part of your lifestyle. (Of course in the better world that I dream of for our children, no mother should need to be up-to-date on toxicology research just to protect herself and her milk – see my first point above).

Some starting points:
– Choose foods that are low in pesticides.
– Eat organic meat, eggs, and dairy.
– Join a CSA farm.
– Learn about which fish are safest to eat.
– Use safer plastics.
– Choose safer sunscreen, shampoo, soap, detergent, makeup.
– Learn about food packaging and which options are safest.
– Check your home for sources of lead exposure.

Where to go to learn more?
MOMS: Making Our Milk Safe
American Academy of Pediatrics: Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk
Pediatric Environmental Health (AAP)
International Lactation Consultant Association position paper
Having Faith and Raising Elijah by Sandra Stiengraber
Slow Death by Rubber Duck, book by Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie


Positive story in USA Today about milk banking

I thought it was pretty cool that a story about banked mothers’ milk made a media source as mainstream as USA Today – and not as a story about donating milk to mothers in disaster areas. It is a story about something that could (and does) happen in Madison.

Keely Shaw, 30, feeds her 5-month-old son Halston while her 2-year-old Wiley plays. Both boys were born premature in the 35th week and drank breast milk from the milk bank while Keely waited for her body to produce milk. She now donates breast milk to The Denver Milk Bank.

If you’re a Madison-area mother that wants to donate milk, get in touch with the Mothers’ Milk Association of Wisconsin (MMAW). If you need donated milk for your baby, MMAW is a good place for you as well to find the information about how to get it.

Safety – pesticide exposure

The bad news is that babies get exposed to pesticides and other harmful chemicals during pregnancy and through their mothers’ milk. The good news is that all the research we have shows that mothers’ milk is best for babies despite this exposure. But I suspect most mothers would be happy to minimize that exposure if they could. The Environmental Working Group has a tool you can use to do that: The Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides. You can look at their lists of most and least contaminated fruits and veggies and adjust what you buy. If you can’t afford to buy all your food organic, you can focus on the produce that is most likely to be heavily contaminated.

Safety – nipple ointments

There are all kinds of things for sale to put on sore nipples. Most breastfeeding helpers agree that usually the best way to help sore nipples is to get good latch and treat any problems like infection or vasospasm. Many women that I talk with, though, say that ointments feel good to them. So it’s useful to know which ointments are probably harmless and which could be hazardous. The Environmental Working Group has a cosmetic safety data base, Skin Deep, where you can search for products by name and get information about their ingredients.

Where can I learn more about taking medications when I’m breastfeeding?

Many package inserts say “Do not take this while pregnant or breastfeeding.” despite the fact that there is good evidence that a lot of medications are generally compatible with breastfeeding. So where can women go to learn about how taking a particular medicine could affect their milk supply or their baby? Here’s a few options:

LactMed is online, provided by the U.S. Library of Medicine (so free to users). It is easy to search for any medication and the results include research references.

Dr. Tom Hale’s Breastfeeding and Medications Forum online archives are open for guests to read. I’ve found information here on some topics (like safety with old dental fillings) that I couldn’t find other places.

A website hosted in Spain (the English language version) One nice feature of this site is being able to search by groups – by a chemical’s use. For example you can look at the category “vitamin”.

American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement on The Transfer of Drugs and Other Chemicals into Human Milk is available online. Other resources often list the AAP’s recommendation on the compatibility of a medication and breastfeeding.

Medications and Mother’s Milk by Thomas Hale is a relatively inexpensive, frequently updated, research-based reference book. I always have a copy with me when I’m working.

Nonprescription Drugs for the Breastfeeding Mother by Frank Nice is another inexpensive reference book.

Finally a resource that isn’t available yet but hopefully will be available soon, is a national call center called the InfantRisk Center. It will be directed by Dr. Tom Hale.

H1N1 and breastfeeding

Are you wondering what breastfeeding mothers should do to keep themselves and their babies healthy during the flu season? I’ve been wondering too as I read the recommendations from different health organizations as they try to figure out what makes sense with the swine flu.

General consensus: wash your hands, take care of yourself, and breastmilk is good for babies. Also, don’t lick pigs. (ok, so they don’t mention the pig-licking but I had to have an excuse to include this picture in my post)


For the rest, check out these links:

CDC recommendations

American Academy of Pediatrics Recommendations

Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine

UK Department of Health