What are you passing through your breast milk?
We all know not to breastfeed our baby if we've been drinking alcohol because it can pass through our breast milk - just like it's important to eat lots of nutrients to pass on to them. But what about all the other little substances that you aren't aware of in your system?
You don't necessarily need to eat or drink something to pass it on to your breastfeeding baby. There are these little man made chemicals called persistent organic pollutants (POPs), which are in our air, water and soil. When we’re exposed to them, they latch onto our fat stores and then get passed onto our babies through our milk.
Don't worry, we're not scare mongering. Breast milk is still less toxic than the air inside most homes in major cities. A study conducted by Ohio State and Johns Hopkins universities in the US found that city-dwelling babies are exposed to between 25 and 135 times more pollutants in the air than in their mothers’ milk. Plus, formula can also contain contaminants – sometimes in even higher doses than breast milk.
However, if you want to stay on top of the chemicals passing through your body, here are the top 5 to be aware of.
1. Bisphenol A (BPA)
BPA used to be used to make plastic containers, until it was discovered that it can cause heart disease and diabetes, as well as infertility in women and erectile dysfunction in men. Now you'll see that many items made of hard plastic – particularly those designed for children – say ‘BPA-free’. It’s still present in the lining of canned foods and on some cash register receipts. Look for BPA-free plastic – and avoid canned foods and receipts.
Fortunately, most countries have banned the use of organochlorine pesticides such as DDT, which can be toxic to the human brain and nervous system in high doses, and were linked to hormonal changes, birth defects and cancer in animals. So the levels detected in breast milk have dropped dramatically since their popular use in the 1940's and 50's. Some pesticides are still used on agricultural crops, and you can limit your contact with them by buying organic food or washing all your fresh produce before eating it.
3. Flame retardants
Used in everything from mattresses to home electronics to reduce their flammability, flame retardants such as PBDEs have been shown to cause behavioural problems, brain damage and cancer in rodents. While more research is needed to find out their effects on humans, you can reduce the levels of flame retardants in your breast milk by minimising your usage of foam-filled furniture, carpets and curtains.
4. Heavy metals
The top 3 to look out for here are mercury, lead and cadmium. Make sure you don't exceed your recommended levels of high-mercury fish to keep your mercury levels healthy. The use of lead is now limited in NZ, but old paint and water pipes can pose a risk, so be particularly careful if you’re renovating your home.
These chemicals soften hard plastics, help lotions absorb into the skin and make fragrances last longer. They’re found in a wide range of household products, including food containers, toys, air fresheners and cosmetics. In animal studies, phthalates have been found to affect fertility and birth outcomes such as gestational age and birth weight, and to create abnormalities in male genitalia. Research is currently being conducted in humans to determine whether phthalates have an effect on asthma, childhood obesity and the timing of puberty. If you prefer to be on the safe side, choose products that say “phthalate-free” (although studies show this isn’t a guarantee) and avoid microwaving food in plastic containers.
What lifestyle changes have you made to limit your child’s exposure to potential toxins in your environment?