Thursday's Tip: Breastmilk as medicine?

If you have hung out with a group of breastfeeding mothers for any length of time you will have heard someone suggest using breastmilk as a cure for rashes or eye infections or any number of other childhood maladies. Is this just crazy talk or is there science to back up using breastmilk as medicine?

The most common suggested “medicinal” use of breastmilk is to treat children’s eye infections. This is not a new idea as an 18th century quote, referring to human breast milk said: “It is an emollient and cool, and cureth Red Eye immediately.” Studies show that most conditions that cause gunky eyes in babies (blocked ducts and the common cold) will resolve on their own without any treatment. For bacteria caused pink eye, evidence shows that mother’s milk is unlikely to be effective against the bacteria that cause this infection. And certainly, in a newborn, genuine pink eyes need to be evaluated by a physician because there is the potential for long term irreversible eye damage.

So what did the studies say?

Verd, in 2007, published an account of his clinic’s switch from treating infants with blocked tear ducts with antibiotic eye drops to mother’s milk drops. The study is retrospective and descriptive rather than quantitative, but it suggests that routinely using mother’s milk is probably safe. Blocked tear ducts, we know, get better without any therapy at all. But if you want to do something, instilling mother’s milk seems safe.

In 2012, Baynham and colleagues published a letter in the British Journal of Opthalmology, looking at the in vitro inhibitory effects of donated fresh breast milk against common ocular pathogens. (Translation: they squirted milk into petri dishes of eye germs to see what would happen.) They found that 100% of their donated milk samples contained bacteria (including, in some cases, bacteria that could cause human disease). Though there was some inhibition of bacterial growth against some bacteria, the inhibition wasn’t strong, and the authors concluded that “… human milk is unlikely to be effective against the most common causes of paediatric conjunctivitis.” There was one interesting finding: of all the bacteria tested, human milk was most effective against the bacteria that causes gonorrhea, which is the same bacteria that causes most serious neonatal eye infections, world-wide. Now, it wasn’t as good as an antibiotic, but for resource-poor communities in the developing world, human milk may be much better than nothing.

Ibhanesebhor, in 1996, also did an in vitro (in the lab) study looking at the effects of human milk against bacteria. He found that while colostrum had some inhibitory effects, mature milk did not—presumably because colostrum has a much higher concentration of antibodies. In any case, even colostrum was effective against only some bacteria, and it wasn’t nearly as effective as an antibiotic.

Another commonly suggested use of breastmilk is to treat ear infections. Most ear infections are middle ear infections, that is to say they are behind the ear drum. Breastmilk in the ear canal will not cross the barrier of the ear drum to reach the bacteria. Breastmilk in the ear canal may be effective against bacteria if the infection is in the outer ear canal such as a “swimmer’s ear” infection. Most inner ear infections clear up on their own. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends waiting 48-72 hours after diagnosis before trying antibiotics. Warmth is soothing to an inflamed ear so mothers who have tried putting breastmilk in baby’s ear may have found that it gave some relief. Warm compresses or warmed oil drops or ear drops will also have the same effect.

Infant atopic eczema is a skin condition that affects about 50% of infants in the first years of their lives. Mothers often try breastmilk as a treatment. One study looked at the short-term efficacy of breastmilk versus hydrocortisone 1% ointment in infants with mild to moderate atopic dermatitis (AD). There were no significant differences between these two groups at days 0, 7, 14, and 21, and the interventions of both groups were found to have the same effects. As breastmilk and the hydrocortisone 1% ointment provided the same results in the healing of AD, the study’s authors support using breastmilk to treat infant atopic eczema because of low cost and accessibility.

Need help sorting out the myths from facts about breastfeeding? La Leche League Leaders are available by phone, e-mail and at group meetings. Find your local contact on the LLLC.ca website

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