If you're breastfeeding or pumping, you may notice that the milk you put out changes from day to day: it may look creamier, or have different-colored tinges according to what you've eaten lately. But did you ever wonder if what's in the milk changes along with its looks? Or if the milk you're giving your baby has enough of everything he needs?
We did. So when Lactation Lab, a new California company that runs samples of breast milk through a testing process similar to the ones dairy farmers have done on their cows, offered to do an analysis of the nutrition and toxins in three of our writers’ milk, we took them up on it. Note, this is not a sponsored post, though Lactation Lab did the testing for free. Here’s what happened.
Getting the milk to the lab
Lactation Lab mailed three test kits out to our bloggers Whitney Barthel, Becky Vieira, and Sabrina Garibian.
At the time of testing, Whitney was nursing a newborn, Becky was nursing a 1.5-year-old, and Sabrina was nursing a 2-month-old. Each mom pumped out enough milk to fill Lactation Lab’s 1-ounce test kit containers, which wasn't hard for Sabrina and Whitney, but Becky found it a little difficult to get the required ounce: "I'm 18 months in and not producing as much,” she says. “We do our one big nursing session in the morning and I didn’t want to use all his milk for this. So I took a lactation booster and did some dry pumping for a few days prior to increase supply and was fine.”
Once the ounce was ready, each mom froze their milk, then shipped it overnight using Lactation Lab’s prepaid box. At the lab, the milk samples were tested for:
-- Vitamin A
-- Vitamin C
-- Vitamin B12
-- Fatty acids including DHA
A few days later, the results were in. Lactation Lab mailed each woman a PDF of her results (screenshots of the PDFs are below), and followed up with an email giving specific dietary recommendations for each woman.
What the lab found
Surprisingly, the lab found that each of these healthy moms had less-than-optimal levels of nutrition in their milk, though the results varied from woman to woman.
Though some people had been telling Becky that her milk had little to no nutritional value for her toddler, her milk was right on target in terms of fat and protein, and was even a little more caloric than average. Hmph, declining nutritional value, go suck it.
Becky’s milk was also very low in the toxins: arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury.
On the other hand, she was a little low in calcium, iron, and Vitamin A, as well as more seriously low in DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid that’s crucial to infant development.
For her part, Sabrina’s milk had about the right amount of fat, carbohydrates, protein, and calories. Her milk’s levels of iron and Vitamin A were great, too, and the presence of toxins was well below the threshold of danger. But her levels of calcium, Vitamin C, and DHA weren’t quite on target.
Finally, Whitney, whose dairy-farmer husband predicted would have low-quality milk because she produces so much and on the farm the cows who make the most milk usually don’t make the best, was actually making milk with an almost ideal number of calories.
The protein and carbohydrate content of her milk was also above average, as was her DHA, which was low in both Sabrina and Becky’s milk. But Whitney’s milk was quite low in fat, calcium, and Vitamin C, and moderately low in Vitamin B-12.
How the moms felt
Each of the moms was dismayed to hear that her milk didn’t have optimal levels of everything.
“I knew I wasn’t great at self-care, but didn’t think it was as off as it was,” said Becky.
Sabrina, who eats a lot of dairy and who takes a nightly vitamin, was surprised that the levels of calcium, Vitamin C and Vitamin B12 were not optimal in her milk. In addition, “I am currently (and always) borderline anemic and have to be careful to always eat red meat at least once a week. Yet my iron levels are just fine in my milk.”
And Whitney was thrown for a loop by her results. “I stressed out because so many of my levels were low. It made me feel like I have been starving poor little Rosie,” she says. “I try to eat really healthy and I take vitamins so it is a little surprising that my milk was lacking in so many things. Definitely eye-opening. I'm sure some of my anxiety with the results are because I'm newly postpartum and sleep-deprived.”
Lactation Lab founder (and UCLA physician) Stephanie Canale says that while her service is still new, so far she’s found “very few women” who when tested couldn’t use “a tweak or two.”
“For some, just a little extra B12 or iron [is what they need],” she said.
The moms did like that Canale emailed specific dietary recommendations to go with the results. All three women were told to increase their daily calcium intake by 500 mg. Becky was additionally instructed to eat more leafy greens, colorful vegetables, and meat, and take DHA, Vitamin C, and iron supplements. Sabrina was tasked with taking in 500 more milligrams of calcium daily, as well as taking DHA, Vitamin C, and Vitamin B12 supplements, and Whitney heard that she should supplement her Vitamin B12 and Vitamin C, as well as eating more orange vegetables, eggs, and orange juice.
The women have been following these instructions as much as they’re able:
“I’m trying to be better at taking my vitamins, this was a good reminder,” says Becky. “I’d say I’ve gone from never to 2-3 days a week. Slightly less tired! Oh, and I’m making more of an effort to eat veggies. Mostly his leftovers, but hey... it’s a start!”
Sabrina said, “I’ve started taking DHA and vitamin B in addition to my prenatal and I swear I feel less tired. I also feel like I can take it easy on the calories since she said my milk is so calorically dense and high in fat.”
Whitney, who was possibly the most affected by the findings, wishes she had data from other women to compare her numbers against: “It would be nice to know what an average number of nutrients is for each thing tested. I mean, it's nice to know where they SHOULD BE, but it would also be nice to know what average is. I was so stressed out seeing my results, maybe knowing that other moms don't test perfect the first time would be comforting to other moms not getting awesome results with their first go-round.”
All agreed, though, that at $170-$400, the Lactation Lab service would have been out of their price range if they’d had to pay for the tests. [UPDATE: Lactation Lab has since dropped the prices to $99-$299]
For her part, Canale says she hopes the information her lab is turning up will encourage women to breastfeed for as long as possible.
“I just saw a little one today for a follow up that I met about 3 weeks ago. Basically mom was being told by her pediatrician to supplement with formula. Long story short, we tested her milk and the calorie count was higher than that of the average formula so I asked to meet with mom and baby in my office. I watched her feed him and he just looked like he was in so much pain....reflux! We started changing positions, [and keeping him] upright after feeds, and actually started him on Zantac. Today he gained more than a lb in one week!" she says.
"I am hoping that at the very minimum we can help a few mothers like this not be discouraged — sometimes there may actually be other issues that are causing babies to not gain weight appropriately and that formula is not always the answer."
Update: Lactation Lab's Canale was taken aback by the test group's reaction to the testing; she wrote the following email, edited slightly for clarity:
I was sad to hear that some of the moms were nervous about the results and that is the last thing I ever want to do.
Lactation Lab was also started and born out of my own guilt. I did not like breastfeeding at first and I struggled. It was painful and not enjoyable. I knew that breast milk was best and there were immunoglobulins, cytokines and good fats and this stuff was called "liquid gold" for a reason. Studies showed that breastfed kids had fewer infections and fewer allergies ... So it was really tough as a physician and mother...I HAD to do this!
My daughter had stopped growing and would not have a bowel movement for 10 days at a time. I felt I was starving her despite giving her enough volume of milk and wanted to know how to make it better. I myself have iron deficiency anemia, hereditary low B12 levels and typically avoid dairy as it makes me uncomfortable. I am not allergic to foods, just really picky myself. To make a long story short, five years later I learned that my daughter has a form of spina bifida and has suffered quite a few falls and resulting concussions. Could I have eaten better? Taken more folic acid than what was in my prenatal (I could not tolerate it on a daily basis due to the overwhelming nausea) or have my B12 checked? Would that have helped or changed her diagnosis?
In any case, I do not want any other mother to feel that way but instead be able to tweak their milk and celebrate the fact that they are able to breastfeed and provide what we know is the best nutrition.
I have taken your blog to heart and today we have re-written our feedback page about results to make sure that moms get the takeaway that their milk is amazing and that it is not about looking for deficiencies but instead fine-tuning their infants nutrition. This was also the case for the 3 moms that reviewed the kits. The quality of their milk was phenomenal and they should be very proud of the fact that could and are breastfeeding.
Opinions expressed by parent contributors are their own.