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
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.
Is Formula Almost The Same As Breastmilk? 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
The truth of the matter is this:
adding something to formula, even if it is in the same amounts as in
breastmilk, does not mean that the baby will get the amount he needs or
the best sort of this something that he needs. The example of iron
helps us understand this. Breastmilk contains enough iron (with the
stores the baby has during pregnancy), to keep the baby iron sufficient
for at least 6 months. To maintain iron sufficiency in formula fed
babies, formula needs to contain at least 6 times more iron than
breastmilk, just because iron does not get absorbed from the baby’s gut
as well from formula as it does from breastmilk.
- There are still hundreds of components of breastmilk that are still not added to formulas.
- Breastmilk varies in what it contains, from morning to
evening, from day to day, from beginning of the feeding to the end,
from day 1 to day 4 to day 10 to day 100, so there is no way we can
know what breastmilk really contains. This means that there is no way to duplicate breastmilk because there is no such thing as a standard
breastmilk. In fact, since every woman produces somewhat different
breastmilk, the notion of a standard breastmilk becomes an absurdity.
Breastmilk is a living, dynamic fluid. Formula is a chemical soup.
So What Does This Mean?
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
But Toxins Are Not Good Are They? No they are not and breastfeeding helps to diminish their bad effects.
Here are some facts:
- Toxins increase the risk of developing some cancers. True, and the evidence shows that breastfeeding babies have a lower risk of some cancers than artificially fed babies.
- Toxins may interfere with neurological function and learning abilities.
True, and the evidence shows that children who were breastfed do better
on neurological and intelligence tests than artificially fed children,
and the longer they are breastfed, the better they do.
- Toxins may interfere with immunity. True, and the
evidence shows that infants who are breastfed have better and more
mature immunity than artificially fed infants, and that this better
immunity carries on much longer than the length of time the infant or
child is breastfed.
What Should You Do? 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
See the video clips and other information at nbci.ca.
Questions? First look at the website nbci.ca or drjacknewman.com. If the information you need is not there, go to Contact Us and give us the information listed there in your email. Information is also available in Dr. Jack Newman’s Guide to Breastfeeding (called The Ultimate Breastfeeding Book of Answers in the USA); and/or our DVD, Dr. Jack Newman’s Visual Guide to Breastfeeding (available in French or with subtitles in Spanish, Portuguese and Italian); and/or The Latch Book and Other Keys to Breastfeeding Success; and/or L-eat Latch and Transfer Tool; and/or the GamePlan for Protecting and Supporting Breastfeeding in the First 24 Hours of Life and Beyond.
To make an appointment online with our clinic please visit www.nbci.ca. If you do not have easy access to email or internet, you may phone (416) 498-0002.
Toxins and Infant Feeding, 2009©
Written and revised (under other names) by Jack Newman, MD, FRCPC, 1995-2005©
Revised Jack Newman MD, FRCPC, IBCLC and Edith Kernerman, IBCLC, 2008, 2009©