Breastfeeding is one of the best ways to protect both our planet’s ecosystems and our health. It helps to ensure food security, has a positive effect on maternal and child health and wellbeing, and is vastly important to our carbon footprint.
Advantages to the environment
There’s no food more locally produced, more sustainable or more environmentally friendly than breastmilk. It’s been called the most “food mile friendly” product there is. It’s a naturally renewable resource and gives babies all the nutrients they need for around the first six months of life.[i]
Breastmilk benefits our environment as it requires no advertising, packaging, or transport and results in no wastage or depletion of natural resources. No energy is wasted sterilizing bottles and refrigerating them. Breastmilk is the perfect temperature so there is no need to use energy to heat anything and water and detergent is not usually needed for washing bottles, unless you’re giving your baby expressed breastmilk. In addition, breastmilk does not create pollution from the manufacturing and disposal of bottles, teats and cans. It is a renewable resource which produces minimal greenhouse gases and water footprint, contributing to local food and water security.[ii]
Unlike breastmilk, artificial infant and toddler milks (which are often based on cow’s milk) have a negative impact on the environment, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming during their manufacturing, processing and transportation stages. Breastmilk substitutes use significant resources and result in considerable waste that ends up in landfills, as well as plastic pollution.[iii] Industrial dairy farms threaten biodiversity and cows’ waste products contribute to the annual global methane emissions – a major contributor to the greenhouse effect, second only to carbon dioxide.[iv] Sewage from dairy cows, as well as the fertilizers used to grow feed for them, pollutes rivers and ground waters, affecting all ecosystems dependent upon those. In some places production of formula requires a high use of fossil fuels. According to a 2019 study by The Imperial College, London, “Overall, breastfeeding for six months saves an estimated 95-153kg CO2 equivalent per baby compared with formula feeding.”[v]
Breastfeeding helps space babies by suppressing fertility in the mother, and is widely used by women throughout the world to help space their children, thus reducing family size which may be especially important in areas where resources are scarce. Exclusive breastfeeding for six months, and continued nursing after that, can be a very effective form of contraception. While individual variations are great most breastfeeding mothers will resume their periods between nine and 18 months after their baby’s birth,[vi] with an average delay of 14 months.[vii] This saves vast amounts of paper and plastic used in sanitary hygiene products and reduces waste
Will nursing mothers need extra food and water?
- Breastfeeding a baby does mean that a mother uses up more calories and may feel hungrier. The amount of extra calories she needs depends on how much body fat she has laid down in pregnancy and how active she is. It has been recommended that 500 extra calories are needed each day, but this may be too much for some mothers.
- The extra calories needed while breastfeeding may be provided by various different foods which will emit varying levels of greenhouse gases, depending on their production methods. For example, beef and cheese will have a larger carbon footprint than cereal and pulses.[iii]
- A woman’s metabolic rate becomes more efficient during lactation and a small increase in grains, vegetables and fruit may be all that is needed.[viii]
- A breastfeeding mother will need extra water, but the amounts will be insignificant compared to the vast quantities of water used in formula milk production and preparation.[iii]
Environmental impact differences in emergencies
- An Australian doctor, Karleen Gribble, has written a report on infant feeding in emergencies.[ix] An emergency preparedness kit for formula-fed infants is recommended to include 100 nappies and 200 nappy wipes, two 900g tins of powdered infant formula, 170 litres of drinking water, a storage container, large cooking pot with lid, kettle, gas stove, box of matches, liquid petroleum gas, measuring container, metal knife, metal tongs, feeding cup/bottles and teats/paper towels and detergent. The cost of this in Australia would be around $250 (2019).
- A breastfeeding mother needs no equipment to feed her baby and her only cost would be for nappies and wipes.
- Although we may think of emergencies as things which happen in other countries, the recent flooding experiences in GB and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic show that an emergency can happen anywhere.
Impact on public health resources
- Breastfeeding protects mothers and babies against many acute and chronic diseases both in the short and the long term. Because breastfeeding improves public health, fewer resources are needed from hospitals and community health services, thus reducing waste and the overall impact on the environment. A 2012 report from UNICEF[x] found that even looking at a handful of conditions, the NHS could save £40m a year with just a small increase in breastfeeding.
- Breastfed babies have 15% fewer GP consultations in the first six months than babies fed on formula,[x] and they are five times less likely to be hospitalised with gastroenteritis.[xi] In addition to reduced waste, this has a positive effect on the environment by reducing transport.
- Breastfeeding also protects against obesity, which is becoming an increasing drain on resources in the world. It helps babies to regulate their own appetite, which will also have a beneficial effect on the use of resources.[xii] For instance, in the first 8 months of life, a formula fed baby consumes 30,000 calories more than a breastfed baby (the equivalent of 120 chocolate bars).[xiii]
Are contaminants in human milk cause for concern?
We live in a polluted world and all human bodies accumulate environmental toxins which enter the food chain due to contamination of atmosphere, water and soil. However, while reports often concentrate on breastmilk they overlook the fact that contaminants which are stored in body fat and slowly metabolised form a greater risk to the foetus during pregnancy when his or her fast-growing body is most vulnerable.
Breastfeeding has the advantage of helping a baby develop a stronger immune system and helps to minimise any effects of environmental exposure. Human milk contains high levels of antioxidants which may help to compensate for any pre-natal exposure to environmental chemicals. Research indicates breastmilk can counteract the neurological effects of contaminants transferred before birth and also any in the milk.[xiv]
Breastmilk cannot be replicated, and the “healthy” ingredients added to formula are man-made, not the living substances in breastmilk which are unique and change to adapt to each individual baby’s requirements. They are easily digestible and inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria and viruses. Even today we don’t have full knowledge of all the constituents and benefits of human milk[xv].
La Leche League International quotes well-known researcher and breastfeeding advocate Miriam Labbok, MD, MPH, IBCLC who says: “No environmental contaminant, except in situations of acute poisoning, has been found to cause more harm to infants than does lack of breastfeeding.”[xiv]
The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding says: “The reality is that contaminants are everywhere, in just about all the foods we eat. By far the safest, healthiest food for your baby is your milk.”[xvi]
What about contaminants in breastmilk substitutes?
A point which is often overlooked in scares about contaminants in breastmilk is that formula and other foods offered to babies are not free from contaminants, with some scientists finding cow’s milk can contain high quantities of medicines administered to the animal.
Formula may contain unintentional contaminants introduced during the manufacturing process; some may contain traces of genetically engineered soya and corn. Soya formulas contain very high levels of plant-derived oestrogens and the beans can use a lot of pesticides and fertilizer when growing.
Water used in processing or preparing foods for a baby may contain residues or substances that may be of concern, while bacteria and food borne pathogens have been detected in commercial formulas, which can lead to serious illness in young babies.[xvii]
The packaging of infant formulas sometimes gives rise to contamination, with broken glass and fragments of metal, as well as industrial chemicals. Bottles, artificial nipples and other feeding devices may sometimes leak chemicals into food. Parents assume that the production of infant formula is heavily regulated, but this is not the case.[xviii] It can be hard to find out what the basic product is made of or where the ingredients come from.
In the past the production of infant formula has relied on voluntary good manufacturing practices and quality control. However, in February 2020, changes to the compositional, labelling and marketing regulations for breastmilk substitutes came into force. This EU directive has been in force since July 2016, but companies were given up to four years to make changes. It is currently suggested that the UK will adopt these regulations regardless of if or how it exits from the European Union.[xix]
Women can reduce the contaminants in their bodies
In general, products which are used on skin or inhaled are not usually absorbed into a mother’s bloodstream in enough quantity to pass into breastmilk. A mother would have to be very ill from exposure for it to also affect her baby. However, the following suggestions for reducing the level of chemicals in a woman’s body can offer a positive way of minimising concerns. [xiv]
- Avoiding smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol since levels of contaminants have been found to be higher in those who smoke and drink alcoholic beverages.
- Considering when purchasing homes and buildings that they may have been treated with pesticides for termites and/or older homes might have lead-based paints.
- Looking at diet and taking into consideration how food has been grown. Eating a variety of foods and thoroughly washing and peeling fruits and vegetables can help to eliminate the hazard of pesticide residues on the skin. When available, eating food grown without fertilizer or pesticide application reduces contaminants.
- Predator fish such as swordfish and shark, or freshwater fish from waters reported as contaminated by local health agencies, are best avoided.[xx]
- Deliberate rapid weight loss after birth is best avoided, as this leads to a greater release of toxins. Breastfeeding uses the body fat which women accrue during pregnancy, leading to a natural weight loss.
- Limiting exposure to chemicals such as solvents found in paints, non-water based glues, furniture strippers, nail polish, and gasoline fumes.
- Removing the plastic cover of dry cleaned clothing, and airing out the garments in a room with open windows for 12-24 hours.
- If possible avoid contact with incinerator discharge, preserved wood, or produce grown near incinerators.
- For those in the workforce, improved workplace chemical safety standards are important for all employees, especially pregnant and lactating women, in addition to avoiding occupational exposure to chemical contaminants.
- Talking to other family members who might inadvertently bring contaminant residue into the home and explaining your concerns.[xiv]
Studies which look at contamination
Past studies which have drawn attention to contaminant concerns have led to improvements. In the 1970s, high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were found in breastmilk and this resulted in the toxic chemical compound’s production being banned by the U.S. Congress in 1979. Further research and initiatives may improve levels of pollution and contamination and benefit us all. In the meantime breastfeeding remains the optimal way to feed a baby.
IBFAN (International Baby Food Action Network) says: “It is also important to emphasise that in the past three decades, the levels of dioxins in the environment and in food, including breastmilk and infant formula, have decreased in countries that apply the strict industrial rules of the Stockholm Convention on POPs. This confirms that the alternative is not the replacement of breastmilk, but the prevention of dioxin production.”[xxi]
Breastfeeding is a free, natural, renewable, safe resource uniquely suitable for human babies which helps to minimise environmental impact, as well as any effects of environmental exposure on both mother and baby. If contaminants are found in breastmilk, they will be in other food sources and the cause of the contaminant needs addressing, rather than suggesting that a mother gives up the important and significant effects of breastfeeding for her,[xxii] her baby[xxiii] and the environment.[xxiv]
Written by Anna Burbidge and Eva Williams
Copyright LLLGB 2016, updated July 2020.
[ii] GIFA. Green Feeding – climate action from birth. Key messages. https://www.gifa.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/2019-Green-Feeding-Key-Messages-Nov6.pdf (accessed 20 July 2020).
[iii] GIFA. Green Feeding – climate action from birth. https://www.gifa.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/2019-Green-Feeding-Europe-Worldwide-Nov6.pdf (accessed 20 July 2020).
[iv] BPNI/IBFAN. Report on Carbon Footprints Due to Milk Formula: A study from selected countries of the Asia-Pacific region, https://www.babymilkaction.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Carbon-Footprints-Due-to-Milk-Formula.pdf (accessed 12 July 2020).
[vi] La Leche League International. Menstruation, https://www.llli.org/breastfeeding-info/menstruation/ (accessed 20 July 2020).
[viii] Sheri Lyn Parpia Khan. Maternal Nutrition During Breastfeeding. New Beginnings, 2004; 21 (2): 44.
[ix] Gribble, K.D. and Berry, N.J. Emergency preparedness for those who care for infants in developed country contexts. International Breastfeeding Journal, 2011, 6,16. Available at http://www.internationalbreastfeedingjournal.com/content/6/1/16
[x] UNICEF UK. Preventing Disease and Saving Resources, https://www.unicef.org.uk/babyfriendly/about/preventing-disease-and-saving-resources/ (accessed 12 July 2020).
[xi] NHS. Infant Feeding Survey – 2005. https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/infant-feeding-survey/infant-feeding-survey-2005-main-report (accessed 20 July 2020).
[xii] Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition. Feeding in the First Year of Life. 2018. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/725530/SACN_report_on_Feeding_in_the_First_Year_of_Life.pdf (accessed 20 July 2020).
[xiii] Riordan, J. and Auerbach, K.G. Breastfeeding & Human Lactation: Student Study Guide. Jones and Bartlett, 1999.
[xiv] La Leche League International. Contaminants, https://www.llli.org/breastfeeding-info/contaminants/ (accessed 12 July 2020).
[xv] La Leche League International. The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. 8th Edition, 2010: 6.
[xvi] La Leche League International. The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. 8th Edition, 2010: 157.
[xviii] World Health Organization, Regulation of marketing breastmilk substitutes, https://www.who.int/elena/bbc/regulation_breast-milk_substitutes/en/ (accessed 12 July 2020).
[xix] First Steps Nutrition Trust. Changes to the compositional, labelling and marketing regulations for breastmilk substitutes that come into force in February 2020. https://www.firststepsnutrition.org/s/Regulation_changes_Nov2019-9zed.pdf (accessed 20 July 2020).
[xx] US Food and Drug Administration. Advice about Eating Fish For Women Who Are or Might Become Pregnant, Breastfeeding Mothers, and Young Children, https://www.fda.gov/food/consumers/advice-about-eating-fish (accessed 12 July 2020).
[xxi] IBFAN. Infant and Young Child Feeding and Chemical Residues. Breastfeeding briefs, 2013, 55. Available at https://www.ibfan.org/breastfeedingbreafs/bb55%20chemical%20residues.pdf
[xxiii] La Leche League International. The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. 8th Edition, 2010: 5-10.
[xxiv] Mead, M.N. Contaminants in Human Milk: Weighing the Risks against the Benefits of Breastfeeding. Environ Health Perspect. 2008; 116 (10): A426–A434. Available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2569122/