by Anne Eglash MD, IBCLC, FABM
One of the most amazing and little-studied phenomenon shared on social media is the a change in breastmilk appearance when an infant is ill. Mothers who express milk notice that their milk might have a deeper yellow appearance when their infants are ill. Wouldn’t this visual make an awesome poster for families to see? But before we pound the nails into the wall, we need to understand what is happening.
I searched Pubmed for research trials, and found only 2 studies that explored this observation. In a 2012 study, a group of researchers evaluated breastmilk from mothers of 31 infants under 3 months of age who were hospitalized with fever. The infants had a variety of illnesses including diarrhea, respiratory infections, urinary tract infections, and meningitis. A second study from 2007 evaluated breastmilk from 36 mothers whose infants were hospitalized with bronchiolitis (severe lower respiratory infection). Both studies had control groups of mothers with healthy infants.
- Breastmilk of mothers with ill infants had higher concentrations of infection-fighting cells (such as lymphocytes and granulocytes) whether the mother was ill nor not.
- Breastmilk of mothers with ill infants had increased infection fighting cells ONLY if the mother was also ill.
- Breastmilk of mothers with ill infants had higher levels of IgA (the major antibody in breastmilk), and the IgA levels came down as the infants recovered.
- Breastmilk of mothers with ill infants had higher levels of tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNFα), which is an infection-fighting substance (cytokine) secreted from cells in breastmilk.
- The mothers whose infants had respiratory infections had more changes in their breastmilk as compared to infants who had fever from other infections such as a urinary tract infection or diarrhea.
See the Answer
Such differences were not recorded in samples of the controls. Interleukin-10 levels decreased in the sick infants’ breast milk after recovery, but also in the healthy controls, requiring further investigation. Secretory immunoglobulin A levels did not change significantly in the study or control group.