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Breastfeeding and environmental toxins

Breastfeeding mums might worry when they hear media reports about toxins.

There are ways to limit your exposure of yourself and your baby. 

toxins
Environmental toxins are chemicals and compounds in our world that can enter the human body and affect our health. They are all around us - in the food we eat, water we drink and air we breathe. 

The topic of breastfeeding and environmental toxins (or environmental pollutants) sometimes comes up in the media. Many news reports present this information in a shocking way to make a good story. This can cause needless worry for parents and lessen the value of breastfeeding for other readers.

How are environmental toxin levels tested?  

There are many ways to test for levels of toxins in the human body. Scientists often test samples of urine, blood, hair and breastmilk. However, breastmilk is often the only one mentioned in news reports.

If toxins are found in breastmilk, it shows that the women living in the area being studied have been exposed to those toxins in their diet or environment. This doesn’t really say anything about breastfeeding or breastmilk.

Breastfeeding is the safe and normal way to feed babies 

As a breastfeeding mother you are providing safe nutrition for your baby. If you were to stop breastfeeding because you were worried about environmental toxins, your baby would face greater health risks. Experts worldwide agree that breastfeeding remains the safest way to support the health and growth of babies when common toxins are present in normal amounts.1,2

Breastmilk provides babies with a defence against environmental toxins 

Environmental pollutants have a greater impact on a baby while they are developing inside their mother’s womb during pregnancy, not when being breastfed.2 After birth, breastfeeding is the best protection that a baby has for normal growth and development. Breastmilk contains antioxidants and immune protective factors which can lessen the effects of any environmental toxins your baby is exposed to, either in the womb or in their environment.1,2

When is a baby most at risk from environmental toxins? 

Environmental toxins have a greater impact on a baby while they are inside their mother’s womb during pregnancy, not when being breastfed. It is during the important stages of development that environmental toxins can be most damaging. After birth, breastfeeding is the best protection that a baby has for normal growth and development. Breastfeeding can help limit the damage caused by exposure to toxins in the womb.3 
 

Limiting exposure to environmental toxins 

There are ways you can reduce the exposure of yourself and your baby to environmental toxins:  

  • Breastfeed your baby exclusively for 6 months.
  • Avoid smoking cigarettes, using recreational drugs and drinking alcohol.
  • Reduce intake of animal fats.
  • Increase intake of grains, fruits and vegetables.
  • Remove pesticides by washing or peeling fruits and vegetables.
  • Ensure adequate intake of omega-3 fatty acids to support your baby’s growing brain.
  • Limit contact with common chemicals (e.g. solvents found in paints, non-water based glues, furniture strippers, dry-cleaned clothes, nail polish and gasoline fumes).
  • Try to avoid breathing in smoke and fumes, and handling ash from a fire.
  • Avoid exposure to toxic chemicals in the workplace.
  • If you think you have been exposed to something, remove and carefully wash your clothes and shoes to avoid bringing toxic chemicals into your home.

Conclusion 

We are all exposed to pollutants in our environments and we are still learning about their effects on our health. The advantages of breastfeeding for you and your baby far outweigh any risk from common toxins that are sometimes found in breastmilk. Take some steps to reduce the environmental toxins in your environment. And keep breastfeeding. It’s the normal, healthy way to feed your baby.

References and further information
  1. Mead M. N. (2008). Contaminants in human milk: Weighing the risks against the benefits of breastfeeding. Environmental Health Perspectives, 116(10), A427–A434. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2569122/
  2. van den Berg, M., Kypke, K., Kotz, A., Tritscher, A., Lee, S. Y., Magulova, K., Fiedler, H., & Malisch, R. (2017). WHO/UNEP global surveys of PCDDs, PCDFs, PCBs and DDTs in human milk and benefit-risk evaluation of breastfeeding. Archives of Toxicology, 91(1), 83–96. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00204-016-1802-z


For further information:

World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA) (2003) - Towards healthy environments for children: Frequently asked questions about breastfeeding in a contaminated environment.

U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CD) (2022) – Breastfeeding: Environmental and Chemical Exposures

© Australian Breastfeeding Association May 2022