Can Breast Milk Cure My Child’s Eye Infection?

Breast milk provides optimal nutrition for infants, and it gives them immune protection that no formula company has been able to replicate. How many other secrets does it contain? Many mothers claim that it is also an effective treatment for eye infections, or conjunctivitis. The anecdotal evidence for this practice is overwhelming, but is there any scientific evidence that it actually works?

What is conjunctivitis?

Conjunctivitis is an infection and/or swelling of the membrane that lines the eyelids. Symptoms include redness, swelling, and goopiness of the eyes. The most common cause of conjunctivitis is a viral infection, also known as pink eye. Pink eye is highly contagious and often passed around daycares and schools.

A swollen, pus-filled eye with conjunctivitis.

Image via Wikipedia

Viral conjunctivitis usually goes away without treatment within a week. Bacterial conjunctivitis is less common and is often treated with antibiotic eye drops [1]. Allergies or irritation (from something like shampoo, for example) can also cause conjunctivitis in children [2].

Babies can also have a blocked tear duct, which causes excessive tearing, sometimes with thick, goopy tears. A blocked tear duct can affect a baby off and on for the first year of life – beyond that, the child should see an eye doctor for treatment [2].

What is the research on breast milk and eye infections?

There are three studies that might have some relevance to this question, but all of them focus on eye infections or blocked tear ducts in newborns. To my knowledge, there are no studies of breast milk as a treatment for conjunctivitis in older babies or children.

Note that colostrum was used in the studies described below. Colostrum is the first milk produced for several days after the baby’s birth, before the mature milk comes in. Colostrum is much higher in antibodies than mature milk.

Study #1: Conducted in India, 51 newborns were given drops of colostrum in their eyes for 3 days, while 72 control newborns received no eye treatments [3]. About 35% of the control infants and 6% of the colostrum infants developed visible eye infections during the experiment. At first glance, these results make colostrum look like a champion infection-preventer! Unfortunately, this is an example of a study that had so many design problems that the data just aren’t that useful. During the 4 years prior to the study, the hospital had just a 5% rate of conjunctivitis. Why then did the control group have a 35% rate of infection? This isn’t clear. The colostrum babies roomed in the South Wing of the hospital, and many of them were delivered by C-section. The control babies were housed in the North Wing and were all vaginal births. It would have been better to randomize the colostrum and control babies with some in each wing so that they had equal pathogen exposure. What if the North Wing (control) had a huge outbreak during the two months of this study? On the bright side, this study found no safety issues with using colostrum in newborns’ eyes.

Study #2:  This was an in vitro study (conducted in petri dishes) of eye infections in 22 Nigerian newborns [4]. The infected babies’ eyes were swabbed, and the bacteria on the swabs were incubated with several different antibiotics, colostrum, and mature milk. The major bacteria types found in this study were Staph aureus and coliforms, and the graphs below show how sensitive they were to 3 of the most effective antibiotics, colostrum, and mature milk.

For example, the growth of Staph aureus was 100% inhibited by the antibiotic gentamicin, 50% inhibited by colostrum, and not inhibited at all by mature milk. What does this study tell us? It tells us that the effectiveness of breast milk against eye infections depends on the type of infection and that colostrum is more effective than mature milk. Remember that this study only looked at two types of bacteria among the many that might cause eye infections, and it didn’t look at viral infections at all. Plus, we always have to be careful about interpreting an in vitro study, because bacteria might grow differently on a petri dish vs. on the eye.

Study #3: A small study conducted in Spain retrospectively compared antibiotic drops and breast milk as treatments for blocked tear ducts in newborns [5]. The blocked tear ducts cleared up faster with breast milk than with antibiotics, and breast milk appeared to be completely safe.

Conclusion: Will breast milk cure my child’s eye infection? What about her blocked tear duct?

There isn’t enough research on the subject to know for sure. The studies described above show that using breast milk in a baby’s eye is likely safe and may be effective against bacterial infections and blocked tear ducts. Colostrum appears to be more effective than mature milk, probably because it has higher concentrations of antibodies (especially IgA). Whether or not mature milk will cure an older baby or child’s viral pink eye has not been studied at all.

Still, countless mothers will tell you that breast milk cured their child’s (or their own) conjunctivitis, and mothers have likely used this practice for many generations. That isn’t exactly proof – those infections might have cleared up on their own with or without breast milk. However, it seems that applying breast milk to a baby or child’s eye is safe, and it is definitely worth a try! If nothing else, breast milk is a free and clean eye wash, and if it allows you to avoid unnecessary antibiotic treatment, that’s an added benefit.

One important caveat: If your newborn has an eye infection, you should call your child’s pediatrician right away. If left untreated, neonatal conjunctivitis can cause lasting damage to your child’s eyes, including blindness. Don’t risk waiting several days to see if breast milk clears things up in these cases.

(As always, I am not a medical doctor, and the information presented here is not medical advice. Please seek the help of a medical professional if you need medical advice.)

Have you tried breast milk as a treatment for eye infections? Did it seem to help?

REFERENCES

1.  PubMed Health. Conjunctivitis. A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia  2010  [cited 2011 November 6].

2.  Fields, D. and A. Brown. Baby 411: Clear Answers and Smart Advice for Your Baby’s First Year. 3rd ed. Boulder, CO: Windsor Peak Press. 2008.

3.  Singh, M., P.S. Sugathan, and R.A. Bhujwala. Human colostrum for prophylaxis against sticky eyes and conjunctivitis in the newborn. J Trop Pediatr. 28(1): p. 35-7. 1982.

4.  Ibhanesebhor, S.E. and E.S. Otobo. In vitro activity of human milk against the causative organisms of ophthalmia neonatorum in Benin City, Nigeria. J Trop Pediatr. 42(6): p. 327-9. 1996.

5.  Verd, S. Switch from antibiotic eye drops to instillation of mother’s milk drops as a treatment of infant epiphora. J Trop Pediatr. 53(1): p. 68-9. 2007.

About these ads

22 thoughts on “Can Breast Milk Cure My Child’s Eye Infection?

  1. While this isn’t completely related, your article made me think about a forum discussion I was reading recently that started with use of breast milk for eye infections and then sort of veered off into using breast milk for all different kinds of ills in all members of the family. The absolutely MOST BIZARRE thing I read was that some mothers drink their own breast milk if they feel they’re getting sick. Where do they think the antibodies in the milk come from? Ok, that’s just my semi-relevant two cents.

    • That’s a study I don’t think we’ll ever see funded! I wonder though… the antibodies are way more concentrated in breast milk than in mom’s serum. I guess it could do something, but yeah, those are the antibodies you just worked hard to produce. Funny:)

    • actually that might possibly work.. because the antibodies your body works to produce for your infant aren’t antibodies your necessarily using yourself… BECAUSE your immune system is located in your stomach.. which is exactly where breastmilk goes for your infant right.. and the tiny antibodies actually stick in the tiny pits in your infants stomach to prevent germs from being absorbed by the bloodstream. Your infant still ingests the germs… they just block them from being absorbed so they dont get sick from them. so if instead of breastmilk sitting in your breasts, you drink it, it may do the same thing for mom. buuuuuuuuuuuttttttt…. do ya really wanna take your baby’s dinner? lol

    • Thanks in advance for sharing it! I think something like this would get shared more if I was like, oh, this amazing breast milk will cure anything that ails you (because I see statements like that all the time without anything to back it up!). An article that says that the research is actually pretty crappy but maybe maybe it works – that just isn’t as sexy. I hope other mothers are also interested in knowing what we actually do and don’t know.

  2. Thank you! This is exactly what I’ve been looking for! While I appreciate other moms’ passion for curing EVERYTHING with breast milk, I’d rather see some scientific evidence that I’m at least not going to HARM my child (or myself) by trying it. And FYI, I am trying it on myself today (I put a drop in each eye every hour or so)….. I have eye redness/itchiness but not necessarily pink eye. So I won’t know for sure if it actually CURES anything, but I CAN tell you it is quite soothing. So since I’m nursing and don’t want to take any meds unnecessarily, it’s a great alternative to eye drops (if nothing else).

    • I agree with you. Some people are so hellbent on home remedies and naturalistic ways that they throw reason to the wind. This article is a breath a fresh air and still leaves the conclusion up to the reader.

  3. As with your other replies – very sensible review. I am a paediatrician and agree with your interpretation of the evidence. I cannot deny the anecdotal evidence but would suggest caution with regards to it not causing harm.

    - Most sticky eyes clear up spontaneously – so mums will see an improvement when they use it.
    - Breast milk can act as a lovely warm sugary, proteiny (made up word) culture medium in which viruses and bacteria can breed very happily. In the developed world where clean water is relatively easily obtained we would recommend water to clean eyes.

    Sarah

    • Hi Sarah – Thanks for your comment. It is wonderful to hear the perspective of a pediatrician on this topic, and I appreciate your words of caution. I agree that the evidence for efficacy of this practice is limited, because as you say, many of these infections would clear up on their own with or without being washed with breast milk (or saline or clean water, as you mention). Anecdotal evidence simply can’t tell us if breast milk is helping an eye infection to clear up or if it does nothing at all. However, I do think there is some value in anecdotal evidence as an indication that breast milk usually won’t make an infection worse. This practice has been around for generations, and I doubt that mothers would continue to try it if their friends and family had observed that applying milk to an infected eye made the symptoms worse. This, in combination with the fact that the studies mentioned in my post did not note any adverse effects of using breast milk in babies’ eyes, leads me to conclude that the practice is unlikely to cause any harm. On the contrary, if it helps, it may make the use of antibiotic treatment unnecessary, which is certainly a benefit.

    • I agree with your concerns, Sarah, when I first heard of breast milk being used by mothers to treat ear infections the first thing I thought of was the “warm sugary, proteiny” delivered on a silver platter to the hungry bacillus or cocci.
      I do know that the milk carries a lot of antibodies and could see it being beneficial. I’ve attached a link to a doctor that deals with this in and advises in great length.
      I have worked with enough doctors to know they do NOT, in fact, know all things medical. And all things medical are debatable.. No offense to your medical degree(s)

  4. Pingback: Do Chocolate Lovers Have Sweeter Babies? A Review and a Giveaway! | Science of Mom

  5. Great post. I moved back to South Africa from the UK when my first born was 10 weeks old. I had been told by a health visitor in the UK to use breast milk when my daughter had a bit of a runny eye, and found it very effective. However, when I got back to South Africa, my mother-in-law would ask me all the time to express little pots of my milk to give to adult and older child family members who had conjunctivitus which was spreading around like wild fire at the time! This took me by surprise, but I was happy to oblige, and they felt that it contributed to rapid healing. When I got conjunctivitus myself, I used it, and found it really soothing. If nothing else I did start feeling a bit like a super woman with instant access to miracle juice!

  6. My son had a clogged tear duct from birth and after month of advice on how to cure it and the pending idea of surgery, I tried breastmilk in his eye several times and within a week or so, his clogged duct wasn’t clogged anymore. I am currently trying breastmilk on my own case of bacterial pink eye. We will see what happens!

  7. I have a 5 year old and she had a nasty eye, red blood shot and green goubers and crust… I put a little breast milk in it and immediately it looked better, she said it felt better too … we are 2 doses in to it and the redness is gone and no more green goup. I will keep going for a couple of days and make sure it clears up… but It seems to really be working… if nothing else she said it feels better and is not rubbing it!

  8. Just came across this post through a series of links from your newer posts…
    My daughter has had several eye infections and breast milk seems to clear them up each time. I actually first got this advice from a very-medically-minded pediatrician; it’s the only thing she didn’t immediately start writing a scrip for (we’ve since changed peds). I’m surprised to hear it isn’t backed by research!

  9. Pingback: Breastfeeding Beyond a Year: Why Stop Now? | Science of Mom

  10. Well, I have pink-eye & it’s bad. I have had it since Thurs. My brother is getting married this weekend coming up. I thought that in four days time it would get better, but it hasn’t. So i called my doctor today to tell her and she suggested I put or try breast milk! I wasn’t sure how much breast milk would still come out (especially by hand). So, I called my soon to be sister-in-law because I knew she had a breast pump still and never used it. SOoooo here goes the liquid-gold into my eye. I thought it would burn, and surprisingly it did not!! I was shocked! I am hoping it works. I am going to try putting it in every hour or so. I will post back on here to let you all know how it works, Then, if it does work, I think I will blog about it on my own blog. Thanks so much for your info. Wish me luck, I have four days to get completely better! (Actually three if I am going to put eye-lashes on for the wedding :-/).

  11. Pingback: 5 Natural Remedies For Pink Eye | The MommypotamusThe Mommypotamus |

  12. Yes, I tried it this am with my son. I’ve been using Polysporin drops and they weren’t clearning anything up. An hour or so after I put breastmilk into his eyes, the redness almost fully dissapeared and the yellow gunk has cleared up. I’m utterly amazed.

Please join the discussion!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s