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Breast Milk Uses - Does Science Support These Home Remedies?

The anecdotal evidence is strong for breast milk use as a home remedy for everything from rashes to congestion to eye infections. But has science backed up any of these claims?

By
Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
Episode #330
infant and mother

When I sat down to research this episode, it was supposed to be different. Since becoming a mom, I’ve heard other mothers claim that breast milk can fix anything from rashes to congestion to eye infections. So I planned to dig into the scientific literature and report back on lab-tested breast milk uses that have nothing to do with feeding a baby. I looked for evidence that using breast milk—topically, not by drinking it—could heal acne, diaper rash, poison ivy, ear infections, eye infections, sunburn, bug bites, and eczema. 

The anecdotal evidence for each of these breast milk uses is strong, but the more I investigated, the more I discovered that there isn't much research out there that has put these claims to the test.

Now, I’m not here to advocate that “breast is best.” Mothers get enough pressure on just about every aspect of mothering. (Honestly, fed is best.) As a scientist I want to know what else breast milk can do besides feed a baby. Why are so many convinced of its healing properties? 

Breast Milk Changes With Baby’s Needs

Although formula companies may try, breast milk is impossible to replicate. The nutritional contents change to meet the baby’s changing needs as it grows. The contents even change during a single nursing session, starting with watery foremilk and transitioning to denser, fattier milk. This change in calories accommodates babies who like to snack frequently throughout the day as well as those who prefer longer, less frequent feedings. 

Although formula companies may try, breast milk is impossible to replicate.

There is even evidence that the contents of breast milk change when a breastfeeding baby is sick. Specifically, levels of leukocytes (cells that help the body’s immune system fight off infections) in breast milk jump up when a breastfeeding baby is sick and then return to base levels once the infection is gone. 

How do the mammary glands even know the baby is sick? Well, that part is still not completely understood, but scientists think the addition of the extra leukocytes may be triggered by the baby’s backwash. How glamorous! Scientists have actually caught this backwash process in action by watching fat globules from breast milk move farther back in the breast via ultrasounds. 

So, breast milk has incredible transformational abilities. What else can it do?

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About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr. Sabrina Stierwalt is an extragalactic astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology and Adjunct Faculty at the University of Virginia.

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