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Early Hum Dev. 1997 Oct 29;49 Suppl:S29-43.

Unnatural constituents of breast milk--medication, lifestyle, pollutants, viruses.

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Unit of Paediatric and Perinatal Epidemiology, University of Bristol, UK.


It is well recognised that although nutritionally breast milk is the optimal food for babies, there are a number of caveats to this, based on the consequences of the modern lifestyle. Here we have considered ways in which the young breast fed child may be exposed to various environmental and medical contaminants which might cause adverse reactions and to which he/she may not otherwise be exposed. These substances are divided into four different areas: (i) medication taken by the mother; (ii) exposure to possibly addictive drugs taken by the mother; (iii) exposure to pollutants mainly from the maternal diet or as the result of her occupation; (iv) viruses. The infant who consumes breast milk may be exposed to a variety of chemicals which may have untoward effects on his/her immediate health and temperament and future development. Potentially hazardous substances ingested by the breast fed infant include medicaments (or their metabolites) that may have been ingested by the mother, potentially addictive common neurotoxicants such as nicotine, caffeine and alcohol, illicit drugs such as heroin and cocaine, and pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls and dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT). There is a paucity of good information on which to base reliable estimates of the harm that this may cause the child. Although breast feeding is known to protect against bacterial infection, a number of viruses are excreted in the breast milk which may infect the child asymptomatically (e.g. cytomegalovirus, Epstein-Barr virus) and which are not known to be harmful, as well as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) excretion which, in contrast, does appear to increase the risk of the child becoming infected. Balancing the risk of infection to the child born to an HIV infected mother, results in the proposition that known HIV positive women in developing countries (where the risk of gastrointestinal infection is high) should continue to breast feed but those in the developed world (where the risk of gastrointestinal infection is lower) are better advised to bottle feed.

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