Breast Milk, Babies' First Perfect Food

Despite fears of toxic chemicals, such as lead, polluting breast milk, it undeniably remains the most important first food for babies.

Breastfeeding. Breast milk is the perfect food for babies. In 2005 the American Academy of Pediatrics declared, “Human milk is species-specific, and all substitute feeding preparations [formula] differ markedly from it, making human milk superior for infant feeding.”

If you are among the millions of moms who have breastfed you know there are challenges. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes your workplace isn’t accommodating. Sometimes family members or the community at large are not supportive. And sometimes you just want your body back after 9 months of sharing it with another human. It’s easy to feel discouraged.

Countless other reasons can tip the scales in the other direction: cost-savings (free!), convenience (no need to go to the kitchen and make a bottle at 2 a.m. and again at 4 and 6), the benefits of bonding and skin-to-skin contact, and the power of nursing to shrink the baby belly. But above all are the health benefits for mom and baby.

Lead in Breast Milk

But, what about moms who have been exposed to contaminants, such as lead? The lead crisis in Flint, Michigan has raised questions about the possibility of mothers passing undesirable substances, such as lead onto nursing babies.

In response to the on-going crisis, MIBFN released the publication, Breastfeeding & Lead Exposure: Issue Statement and Recommendations. The co-chairs of the organization and authors of the statement (and medical professionals) note that “Lead in maternal plasma is indeed transferred to breast milk, however, the most recent studies indicate that very little maternal plasma lead is actually transferred to the milk…”

Therefore, only nursing moms with exceedingly high blood lead levels (BLL) of above 40 mcg/dL are encouraged to temporarily interrupt breastfeeding (but continue to pump) and resume when their BLLs are 40 mcg/dL or below. This level, however, is extremely rare. Indeed, no one--man or woman--during the crisis in Flint has recorded a BLL higher than 27 mcg/dL. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and MIBFN encourage parents to have their nursing infant’s blood tested for lead levels as well if the mom has a BLL of 5 or higher.

The takeaway here is that breast milk is still best. Mothers that breastfeed when drinking water sources are contaminated actually protect their children from contaminants, such as lead in the water.

Other Toxic Chemicals

In our daily lives, we are exposed to many toxic chemicals, some of them can even build up in our bodies. Chemicals like Bisphenol A (BPA, a plastic component), PBDEs (flame retardants), perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs, used in floor cleaners and non-stick pans), phthalates (used in plastics) can end up in our blood, tissues, and even in mother’s milk. But, medical associations and researchers agree: the benefits of breastfeeding are so vitally important that they outweigh potential risks from toxic chemicals present in breast milk.

Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, puts it this way, “Given the documented short- and long-term medical and neurodevelopmental advantages of breastfeeding, infant nutrition should be considered a public health issue and not only a lifestyle choice. The American Academy of Pediatrics reaffirms its recommendation of exclusive breastfeeding for about 6 months, followed by continued breastfeeding as complementary foods are introduced, with the continuation of breastfeeding for 1 year or longer as mutually desired by mother and infant.

What about formula?

If any parent is not convinced, consider this: formula contains contaminants too. A 2011 study testing 437 individual samples of infant formula, oral electrolytes, and 5% glucose solutions found average levels of aluminum of 440 ng g−1 in milk-based formula and 730 ng g−1 in soy-based formula. These levels are about 9 - 14 times higher than the highest levels found in human milk (50 ng g−1). The researchers found, levels of the heavy metal cadmium to be slightly higher in milk-based formula than in human milk, while lead levels were on average, marginally lower. BPA, perchlorate, and phthalates have all been found in infant formulas too.

So, the next opportunity you have, encourage and support a nursing mom. It may not easy for her. But, it is by far the best choice for the health of our next generation.

Learn more about how the Ecology Center’s First Food and Healthy Stuff programs are working to keep toxic chemicals out of breast milk and consumer products


Published on May 24, 2016