Avoiding Potential Toxins in Breast Milk and Formula

Breastfeeding is still recommended but even nursing infants could be at risk
baby at mother's breast
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Breastfeeding is a continuation of the intensely nourishing and profound connection of pregnancy. Yet, nursing infants are extremely vulnerable to the toxins and pollutants that reach them. In North America, most mothers want and intend to breastfeed. For those who cannot, there are few losses more deeply felt. Your chances at a successful breastfeeding experience are greatly improved by following a healthy diet and being aware of how your environment and lifestyle can directly impact breast milk.

What's been found in breast milk

The charitable organization Making Our Milk Safe (MOMS) is committed to raising awareness about the vulnerability of children to chemical exposure before, during and after pregnancy. They report that: “Along with its antibodies, enzymes and general goodness, breast milk also contains dozens of compounds that have been linked to negative health effects,” including the plasticizers BPA, PVC, phthalates; chemical flame retardants such as PBDEs; the rocket fuel and dry-cleaning chemical perchlorate; the non-stick and waterproofing perfluorinated chemicals; and the heavy metals cadmium, lead and mercury.

Breast milk is still the best!

Even with the very real environmental contamination that continues from womb to breast, breastfeeding is still the best option for babies, and all major health organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO), American Academy of Paediatricians (AAP), and the Canadian Pediatric Society (CPS) recommend that women breastfeed for as long as they can. Despite 90 percent of mothers wanting to breastfeed, only 26 percent of mothers in Canada and 16 percent in the U.S. make it to the six-month goal of exclusive breastfeeding. So what then?

Science suggests that breast milk is ideal for baby’s health, even if it doesn’t come from the biological mother. This is where donated breast milk takes centre stage. There are organizations that meld the time-honoured tradition of wet nurses with the advantages of social media to help connect babies-in-need with donors of free breast milk. These include Human Milk 4 Human Babies, which promotes “informed milk-sharing” and Eats on Feets, which believes “community-based milk sharing is normal”.

Considerations for choosing commercial infant formula

If you choose formula, it’s possible and healthier to prepare your own. The Weston A. Price Foundation and book Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon both have excellent advice and research on making infant formula. There are also ideas for supplementing your organic commercial infant formula with items like egg yolks and cod liver oil.

If purchasing commercial infant formula, I strongly suggest you buy it powdered and organic, if possible. Non-organic infant formula can be contaminated with pesticides, synthetic preservatives, and artificial ingredients. While powdered formulas can contain byproducts of plastics, such as bisphenol-A, they are far more likely to be found in liquid formulas, having leached from the cans.

Be aware that, with the exception of Baby's Only, most organic formulas are not meeting the organic standards in the US or Canada. How can this be? you may ask. Organic regulations prohibit all synthetic ingredients unless they are first reviewed by the National Organic Standards Board. Unfortunately, the USDA has not been (or is behind in) adopting the recommendations of the National Organic Standards Board, making their recommendation unenforceable. Thus infant formula companies have continued to use unapproved synthetic ingredients such as ascorbyl palmitate, beta carotene, hexane-made docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (ARA). Organic and non-organic formula often have other problems as well, including in many cases a reliance on artificial sweeteners and sugars rather than the naturally-sweet, but more expensive lactose found in breast and animal milk.

If making formula, always use clean, filtered water. Tap and bottled water, even in North America, can be sources of parasites and bacteria as well as other contaminants such as chlorine by-products, weed killers, pesticides, solvents, heavy metals, and nitrates from fertilizers. If filtered water isn’t an option, use cold water from the tap. Let the water run for ten seconds first, to reduce exposure to things like lead from the pipes, and then boil.

And when considering bottles or food storage, it’s important to keep in mind the research on plastics. A 2011 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives found that “most plastic products release estrogenic chemicals.” And there is no plastic product that has been proven safe for children to mouth or ingest. Plastics—including (bisphenol-A) BPA-free plastics, which may be even more toxic and often still contain bisphenols—are more likely to leach their problematic chemicals when heated, microwaved, or when they come into contact with fats or acids.

The problem with soy formula

Soy formula should be avoided due to its ability to harm a developing endocrine system and mimic estrogen, as well as its potentially dangerous levels of aluminum and manganese. It has been suggested that soy-based infant formula may be linked to ADHD, early onset of menses, and early formation of breast tissue. Most major health organizations in both Canada and the U.S. recommend against using soy formula unless medically necessary (which is very rare as babies are born reliant on lactose, a primary ingredient in breast milk).

In no way should this discourage you from breastfeeding, as the benefits of breast milk normally far outweigh any possible risks. Even before you become pregnant, this is a good reminder to take steps to eat a balanced, whole-foods diet, choosing organic where possible, and reduce the toxic load on your body any way you can!