By Dr. Stephanie Canale
When I was breastfeeding my second child, I had so much milk that my husband and I joked that we’d have to buy an extra freezer! Supply was never my problem. But when I returned to my medical practice around 5 weeks after my second daughter’s birth, pumping in my office in between seeing patients, something changed. My daughter stopped gaining enough weight, and she even stopped pooping. I was panicked.
I had enough stress juggling my medical practice, being on call, and doing hospital work while also caring for my older child. Now this? And I was perplexed - even though my supply appeared to be sufficient, something must have been off with the quality of my milk. The scientist in me wanted to know exactly what was in my milk and what I could do to help my baby thrive.
Extensive literature searches revealed blanket statements about the overall benefits of breast milk, but no tools or tests existed to find measurable, objective data. I wanted to confirm that I was providing my child with the nutrients she needed, and more, and I wanted to be able to help my patients, too. In my medical practice, many mothers expressed the same concerns about the quality of their breast milk and frustration with the inability to uncover any information about it through lab testing.
The scientist in me wanted to know exactly what was in my milk and what I could do to help my baby thrive.
Faced with these questions and an obvious need for answers, I decided to use the academic resources available to me, consult with my colleagues and develop a unique, comprehensive set of tests specifically for breast milk. I spent over a year working with top chemists to develop a simple, at-home breast milk test to empower moms with nutritional information such as fat and calories, vitamin and mineral content and even whether their breast milk contained potentially toxic substances such as arsenic or mercury.
I made the test available first to the patients in my practice, with astounding results. I learned that while we’re all conditioned to worry about our breast milk supply, it’s actually quality, not quantity that matters most. And many of the assumptions that we have about breast milk may be wrong - especially, that all breast milk content is the same.
One mom whose baby wasn’t gaining weight took the test and found that her breast milk was extremely low in fat and calories. A simple switch to a fuller fat diet helped her baby start gaining weight.
Another mom took our premium test and found elevated levels of arsenic in her breast milk, originating from regular consumption of rice at dinnertime, which was easily remedied by reducing her rice intake.
One mother was found to have high levels of mercury, and we discovered it was her fish oil supplements. We changed her to a plant-based supplement and the levels decreased within one week. Another mother was found to have high levels of mercury which was directly related to eating sardines and tuna. She stopped eating fish and her levels went undetectable. (For more on which fish to avoid while breastfeeding, check out these FDA guidelines.)
I learned that while we’re all conditioned to worry about our breast milk supply, it’s actually quality, not quantity that matters most.
Several moms found low levels of DHA in their milk, which has been proven to support a healthy nervous system and most important for brain development. Many moms stop taking their prenatal vitamins after their baby is born, some women simply forget, and some are not sure about what they should take. Everyone knows about prenatal vitamins but there are few “postnatal” vitamins available. I am asked almost on a daily basis “well now that I am breastfeeding what should I take”? After re-starting DHA supplements, most moms I treat see noticeable improvement in under two weeks.
Seeing the value of our tests to my patients, I made the tests available commercially earlier this year through Lactation Lab, a company founded by me and my husband Eric.
Back to the story of why my baby wasn’t gaining weight despite adequate supply, I started to supplement my breast milk with formula, despite knowing the benefits of breastfeeding and wanting to continue. My daughter did start to gain weight and the problem resolved best when she started on solid food. I’m happy to say she loves to eat!
That said, I do believe that the quality (and quantity) of many mothers’ milk drops when they go back to work for several reasons. In general, working moms are just plain busy. They have less time to eat well and drink enough water and have more stress overall. Many moms do witness a drop in supply, but it’s important to consider the overall quality of milk as well. It’s critical for working breastfeeding moms to remember to take care of themselves, because that will affect the health of their baby.
Each test that we complete through Lactation Labs is helping us to learn more about how moms can give their babies the best nutrition possible. Short term, it’s very gratifying to see a mother’s frustration transformed into confidence; to know that a simple and accessible test can open up new vitality for a newborn baby. Long term, I’m optimistic that patterns we see through the results of these tests will give way to new discoveries about what makes breast milk so powerful.
It is my hope that the scientific knowledge gained by this research will ensure that mothers everywhere raise the healthiest babies possible.
Moms wishing to try Lactation Lab’s breast milk testing kits can receive 20% off their order by using promo code TOTUM at checkout. (Offer valid through March 31, 2018)