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