Baby’s first super food

Mom nursing baby and older daughter practicing with doll

Cropped image. Leigh Blackall, Flickr. CC license.

Despite fears of toxic chemicals such as lead polluting breast milk, it undeniably remains the most important first food for babies.

Breastfeeding. If you’re one of the millions of moms who breastfed, you know there are challenges. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes your workplace, family or community-at-large aren’t supportive. And sometimes you just want your body back after nine months of sharing it with another human. It’s easy to feel discouraged.

Countless other reasons can tip the scales in the other direction: cost-savings, convenience (no need to go to the kitchen and make a bottle at 2 a.m., then again at 4 and 6), and the benefits of bonding and skin-to-skin contact. But above all are the health benefits for mom and baby.

Health benefits for mom

Breastfeeding reduces your risk of breast and ovarian cancer. The American Institute for Research on Cancer found breastfeeding to be “convincingly linked to protection against all-age breast cancer risk.” Research also shows a decrease in ovarian cancer risk for breastfeeding moms. In both cases, the longer a woman breastfeeds, the greater the reduced risk.

Breastfeeding moms also tend to lose baby weight more easily and have a 10 – 20 percent lower risk of diabetes, hyperlipidemia (high fat levels in the blood), and cardiovascular disease as compared to moms who birthed but never breastfed, according to a review in Obstetrics & Gynecology.

Health benefits for baby

In 2005 the American Academy of Pediatrics declared, “Human milk is species-specific, and all substitute feeding preparations [formula] differ markedly from it, making human milk superior for infant feeding.”

The list of known health benefits is long and includes a reduction of the incidence of pneumonia, inflammation of the inner ear, SIDS, stomach flu in infancy, childhood obesity, hypertension, asthma and some malignancies. Breast milk also contains substances “… that appear to influence brain development and increase resistance to chronic diseases such as asthma, allergies, and diabetes,” according to a 2002 mini-monograph on chemical contaminants in breast milk, which appeared in Environmental Health Perspectives.

Wow! A reduction in SIDS and serious illnesses as a baby and preventing diseases in the future? That’s nothing to sneeze at. And speaking of sneezing, breastfeeding can help that too. Tiny amounts of a baby’s saliva (and germs) are passed back to the mother during nursing, enabling the mother’s body to customize antibodies in the milk to fight off the baby’s cold or infection.

Lead in breast milk

What about moms exposed to contaminants such as lead? The lead crisis in Flint raised questions about the possibility of mothers passing undesirable substances onto nursing babies.

In response to the ongoing crisis, the non-profit Michigan Breastfeeding Network (MIBFN) released the publication, Breastfeeding & Lead Exposure: Issue Statement and Recommendations. The co-chairs of the organization and authors of the statement (and medical professionals) note that, “Lead in maternal plasma is indeed transferred to breast milk, however, the most recent studies indicate that very little maternal plasma lead is actually transferred to the milk…”

Therefore, only nursing moms with exceedingly high blood lead levels (BLL) of above 40 mcg/dL are encouraged to temporarily interrupt breastfeeding (but continue to pump and dump) and resume when their BLLs are 40 mcg/dL or below. This level, however, is extremely rare; no one — man or woman — during the Flint crisis recorded a BLL higher than 27 mcg/dL. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and MIBFN encourage parents to have their nursing infant’s blood tested for lead levels as well if the mom has a BLL of 5 or higher.

Other toxics

We are exposed to other environmental toxic chemicals every day. Things like Bisphenol A (BPA, a plastic component), PBDEs (used in flame retardants), perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs, used in floor cleaners and non-stick pans), phthalates (used in plastics) can end up in our blood, tissues, and even in mother’s milk. But medical associations and researchers agree: The benefits of breastfeeding are so vitally important that they outweigh potential risks from environmental toxics.

Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, puts it this way: “Given the documented short- and long-term medical and neurodevelopmental advantages of breastfeeding, infant nutrition should be considered a public health issue and not only a lifestyle choice. The American Academy of Pediatrics reaffirms its recommendation of exclusive breastfeeding for about six months, followed by continued breastfeeding as complementary foods are introduced, with the continuation of breastfeeding for one year or longer as mutually desired by mother and infant. Medical contraindications to breastfeeding are rare.”


Formula contains contaminants too, sometimes at levels much higher than breast milk. A 2011 study tested 437 individual samples of infant formula, oral electrolytes, and 5 percent glucose solutions and found average levels of aluminum to be about 9 – 14 times higher than the highest levels found in human milk. Researchers found levels of cadmium, a heavy metal, to be slightly higher in milk-based formula than in human milk, while lead levels were on average, marginally lower. BPA, perchlorate and phthalates have been found in infant formulas too, and all without the immune-boosting benefits of breast milk.


For some families, however, breastfeeding may simply not be an option. The Ecology Center’s First Food program suggests prioritizing secondary feeding options in this order:

  1. Mother’s own expressed milk
  2. Screened and pasteurized human donor milk
  3. Infant formula

To learn more about human donor milk visit Human Milk Banking Association of North America or read Sharing Breast Milk: Donation and Co-Nursing by What to Expect.

Learn more about how the Ecology Center’s First Food and Healthy Stuff programs are working to keep toxics out of breast milk and consumer products.

– Melissa Cooper Sargent, Environmental Health Educator with LocalMotionGreen at Ecology Center. For more information, you can email her at or visit


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