The question of toxins in breastmilk is being addressed in a patient information sheet because the issue comes up every few months in the media, as regular as clockwork. It frightens many pregnant women out of breastfeeding their babies and many women who are already breastfeeding into stopping. Journalists do not seem to know how to handle this question very well. Some may have an ulterior motive (“my baby wasn’t breastfed and he’s okay”) thus finding a way of getting back at breastfeeding advocates and justifying their “choice of infant feeding”. It is, of course, unprofessional to do this, but that doesn’t stop them. Others are merely trying to get out the news but often without understanding what they are doing. They don’t understand, for example, that by talking about toxins in breastmilk and considering formula as an almost as good alternative, they are striking a blow against breastfeeding.
Why are there all these studies that look at toxins in breastmilk? One gets the impression that there is panic about the state of breastmilk in the modern world, that it is so polluted that everyone is trying to study it. But the reason that breastmilk is being studied so often is that it is easily available, and gives us an easily obtained sample of human fluid. That’s the reason, not because scientists are worried about breastmilk in particular. We need to be worried about all our bodily fluids given the levels of pollution we have created in the world.
This question needs to be considered in trying to understand the issue of toxins in breastmilk and the answer is no, formula is not almost like breastmilk, not by a long shot. Just because every few years the formula manufacturers add something to their formulas that we knew was in breastmilk for years but the manufacturers denied were of any importance, doesn’t mean that the “new and improved” formula is just like breastmilk. In some cases, the formula is improved, but remember, they were telling us that the formula before the “new and improved” version was also “almost like breastmilk”. This is true, for example, of the long chained polyunsaturated fatty acids (DHA and AA) that are supposed to make your baby smarter (one company even calls their formula A+, but it deserves a C- at best). We’ve known how important these fats are for many years, but for many years (before they were added to formula, of course), the manufacturers, echoed by many health professionals, just kept saying that it didn’t matter, and that there was no proof that these fats were of any importance at all (this is still in the Canadian Paediatric Society’s 1995 statement on the nutrient needs of premature babies). This cycle of “our milk is just like breastmilk” followed by “we have now added x to our milk so that it is even more like breastmilk” has been going on since the 19th century.
This means that we should consider formula a drug, which, if one thinks about it, is exactly what it is. It replaces a normal fluid (breastmilk). It is only very superficially like that fluid it replaces. There are known side effects of formula, in the short term, medium term and long term, some quite serious and irreversible. Formula may occasionally be necessary, but so are drugs. In rare cases, formula can be lifesaving, but so can some other drugs.
A drug is, as my pharmacology professor said to us in medical school, a poison or toxin with beneficial side effects. There is much wisdom in that statement. So when a mother decides to feed her baby artificial milk instead of breastfeeding, she is not avoiding the problem of giving toxins to her baby.
In fact, it is amazing how indulgent we are towards formulas. In none of the articles or television programmes that bring us the news of toxins in breastmilk, do they ever, in any I have read or heard, talk about toxins in formula. There are toxins in formula. Why would everything on earth be polluted, even the far reaches of the Arctic, but not formula? Formula is full of heavy metals, including lead, for example, in quantities much higher than breastmilk. And why would pesticides not be present in formula? After all, the cows do eat the grass in the countryside where the fields are sprayed. And soybeans grow there too. Interesting you never read about this in the newspapers.
No they are not and breastfeeding helps to diminish their bad effects.
Here are some facts:
If you breastfeed your baby, you are doing the best for your baby, and for the world, for that matter. Breastfeeding is very environmentally friendly. Formula feeding pollutes the environment. The fact that there are pollutants in breastmilk can be likened to the situation of the canary in the coal mine. We should be worried about what we are doing to our planet, but this should not lead us to encourage mothers to feed their babies artificially.
See the video clips and other information here.
The information presented here is general and not a substitute for personalized treatment from an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) or other qualified medical professionals.
This information sheet may be copied and distributed without further permission on the condition that it is not used in any context that violates the WHO International Code on the Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes (1981) and subsequent World Health Assembly resolutions. If you don’t know what this means, please email us to ask!
©IBC, updated July 2009
Questions or concerns? Email Dr. Jack Newman (read the page carefully, and answer the listed questions).
Make an appointment at the Newman Breastfeeding Clinic.