Effects of Radiation on Breast Milk and Breastfeeding Mothers

The trauma from the recent Japan earthquake and tsunami has resulted in a ripple effect of disasters. All over the news are images of the destruction of life and reports capturing the devastation that has wreaked havoc on these precious innocent people.  Most recently the news reported about radiation exposure from nuclear storage areas in Japan that were destroyed in the shattering 8.9 earthquake. It has even been reported that small levels of radiation from the Japanese stations could potentially travel even as far as my neighboring cities in California.  I personally live in Southern California where earthquakes happen quite frequently. I specifically live near the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. Our local, county, and state governments initiated detailed plans for our safety in the unlikely event of an emergency.  Since this natural disaster hit, that has literally ripped a nation apart, people have reflected on the possibility of a natural disaster effecting our area. Fear of the unknown can be a debilitating thing, especially when it is out of one’s control. When you are a new mother, fear seems to be amplified in every possible harmful scenario. You are fully responsible for this little person, and naturally you want what is best for your baby.  Thankfully, there are things we can do to protect ourselves and our children from further danger if an unplanned disaster should take place. In my last post, I discussed the Importance of Breast Milk in an Emergency, however what happens when you are following these steps, providing breast milk to these babies, but an uncontrollable situation such as radiation exposure, whether it be from a natural phenomenon or a medical procedure, has reared it’s ugly head? Is there a significant danger?

The most important thing to consider when trying to decide whether or not to breastfeed after radiation exposure is weighing the benefits of breastfeeding vs. the potential risks involved. Breast milk in and of itself has life saving properties that are going to protect your baby’s immune system far better then artificial milk.  The potential danger of radiation stems from the amount of radiation you have been subjected to. According to the Radiation Information Network at Idaho State University, the average person in the United States receives less then 5 REM, every year. This  accumulates over time from daily exposure from small sources such as our cell phones, microwaves, airplanes, occasional x-rays and natural resources such as radon. ( For a complete list of sources and doses visit: Radiation and Risk.)  Here is an excerpt taken by permission from the Radiation Information Network, explaining how radiation exposure effects our cell development:

Radiation causes ionization in the molecules of living cells. This ionization results in the removal of electrons from the atoms, forming ions or charged atoms. The ions formed then can go on to react with other atoms in the cell, causing damage. In lower doses the cells are able to repair the damage rather quickly. At higher doses (up to 100 rem), the cells might not be able to repair the damage, and the cells may either be changed permanently or die. Most cells that die are of little consequence, the body can just replace them. Cells changed permanently may go on to produce abnormal cells when they divide. In the right circumstance, these cells may become cancerous. This is the origin of our increased risk in cancer, as a result of high levels of radiation exposure.”

The higher the dose of radiation the stronger the chances of developing complications. Therefore, according to the Health Physics Society, low levels of radiation are generally safe for breast-feeding mothers and will not effect breast milk. However if a mother is going to have nuclear medicine injected into her body or is having continual radiation therapy in high doses, it is recommended to stop breastfeeding. This is because the radioactive isotopes may go into the breast milk. If radiation is medically nessesary for the health benefits of the mother, it is best to discuss the potential temporary risk of exposure to the baby based on the radioactive levels of the milk. For example, if the mother was needing to undergo a nuclear test, it would be recommended to “Pump and Dump” that milk for 24 hours until the nuclear medicine and radioactive features had left the mother’s body. At that time breastfeeding would most likely be resumed.

If the mother is undergoing low dose radiation therapy on a localized area, according to the British Journal of Radiology, the mother can still choose to breastfeed if both the mother and baby’s doctor feel it is safe and no potential risk is posed to the infants over all health. However, radiation therapy has been shown to decrease milk production in some women and therefore more frequent feedings may be necessary.

Choosing to breastfeed  when exposed to radioactive material is an individual choice. There is still a lot of research left to be done. Not all of the potential side effects have been determined. The best decision you can make for your baby depends on the level of radiation and feeding alternatives that are readily available.

For further information speak to your doctor about potential side effects and risks for you and your baby.

Copyright© 2011 Danielle Gauss,IBCLC – JustBreastFeeding.com. All Rights Reserved.

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2 Responses to Effects of Radiation on Breast Milk and Breastfeeding Mothers

  1. Daughter of breast cancer survivor says:

    My mom found out (Dec 2011) that she had breast cancer, 2 weeks after I found out I was pregnant with my first baby, it was an awful time. Although it was horrible timing it was alsoeant to be. My pregnancy was a wonderful distraction for her and myself. We had similar symptoms during her chemo and laughed about it daily. But to get to my point… I wanted to let whoever I can know that my breast milk really helped to relieve my moms burns from radiation. I know it wouldn’t be the easiest remedy to get ahold of if you don’t know someone but another option may be getting your hands on some pure cow or goats milk. The main idea is that it sooths the burn. I hope this will help someone!

  2. Pingback: Use of Radioisotopes (and other imaging agents) during Lactation : KellyMom

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