Debbie’s story about breast milk and pain relief
Debbie has lived and worked on the North West Coast of Tasmania all her life. When she was a young mum, she thought she noticed that breastfeeding her babies soothed them if they were in any pain. She told us, “I thought they calmed quickly and stopped crying.”
Then she told us that when her second baby was very young she took him for a vaccination injection. She went to feed him and asked the doctor to give him the injection while he was feeding.
The doctor said, “What are you doing?”
Debbie said, “It relieves the pain.”
The doctor: “Don’t be ridiculous!”
However, this theory has been strongly supported by scientific research! Trust your observations and keep asking questions!
Does breastfeeding a baby after they’ve had a vaccination injection reduce the pain they experience?
Maybe you’ve wondered if breastfeeding your baby after they’re hurt calms them down not just because they’re having a cuddle but because of something they’re receiving through the breastmilk itself?
Is pain relief through breastmilk an ‘old wives’ tale’ – or is there something to it?
It’s commonly known that breastfeeding releases oxytocin in the brain of the feeding parent and the baby, relaxing them both and enhancing the bond between them. For this reason, oxytocin has been called the ‘love’ or ‘cuddle’ hormone.
It makes sense, then, that the act of breastfeeding would reduce pain and stress experienced by a baby. Breastfeeding involves the presence of a person who cares for the baby, holding the baby closely and allowing skin-to-skin contact with the caregiver – all of which helps in moderating a painful experience by releasing all that feel-good oxytocin.
But did you also know that breastmilk itself contains pain-relieving hormones that benefit the baby?
You can’t get it from the chemist like paracetamol and ibuprofen, but breastmilk is a good natural analgesic for babies! Breastmilk contains hormones that either have analgesic properties or can be converted by the body into analgesic substances. Endorphin hormones are the body's natural painkillers. The beta-endorphins found in breast milk are believed to help newborns deal with the stress of birth and adjust to life outside the womb.
It was 20 years ago when researchers learned breastfeeding significantly reduces crying (by 91%) and grimacing (by 84%) in infants who are experiencing pain. Since that first study, there have been over 20 more conducted and several research reviews that confirm the pain-relieving properties of breastmilk.
Researchers typically take a blood sample via needle prick in the heel of babies while they are being breastfed, while swaddled in their basinet, or when administered expressed breastmilk rather than feeding directly from the breast. Babies’ levels of crying and grimacing are recorded, along with any changes in heart rate. Some studies have tracked which parts of the babies’ brains have been activated during the procedure. Evidence strongly suggests breastfeeding itself, and the taste of expressed breastmilk to a lesser extent, blocks pain from developing and reduces any felt pain.
Breastmilk alone is associated with blocked or weakened pain, and caregiver holding combined with breastfeeding shows the greatest analgesic effect.
So – analgesics are delivered to babies through breastmilk! What else is passed through breastmilk to the baby? Along with hormones, breastmilk contains many antibodies and nutrients. Regardless of how good or poor the mother’s diet, the composition and quality of breastmilk is largely the same the world over.
Parents who are taking their own medications – for pain or infection, anxiety or depression, contraception, low milk supply or other reasons – might be concerned about the baby ingesting these medications through breastmilk. These concerns can result in some caregivers stopping breastfeeding unnecessarily or changing to a less suitable medication for themselves.
However, it is usually less than 10% of the maternal dose of medicine that is excreted through breastmilk, and less than 10% is considered medically compatible with breastfeeding. So, if this thought is worrying you, talk to your doctor about the specific medicine you are prescribed and whether it is considered safe to take while breastfeeding, so that you can look after yourself and continue breastfeeding if that is something that works for you and your baby.
Mother's Milk As Natural Painkiller, Grow by WebMD https://www.webmd.com/baby/ news/20020401/mothers-milk-as-natural-painkiller
Agarwal R. Breastfeeding or breast milk for procedural pain in neonates : RHL commentary (last revised: 1 June 2011). The WHO Reproductive Health Library; Geneva: World Health Organization. https://srhr.org/ rhl/article/breastfeeding-or-breast-milk-for-procedural-pain-in-neonates
Breastfeeding or breast milk for procedural pain in neonates (2012). Prakeshkumar S Shah 1, Cecilia Herbozo, Lucia Liz Aliwalas, Vibhuti S Shah. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews https://pubmed.ncbi. nlm.nih.gov/23235618/
Medicine Use in Lactation, Prescriber Update 36(2): 22-25, June 2015, Medsafe: New Zealand Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Authority. https://www. medsafe.govt.nz/profs/puarticles/June2015/ June2015Lactation.htm
Infant Analgesia With a Combination of Breast Milk, Glucose, or Maternal Holding (2018). Stefano Bembich, PhD; Gabriele Cont, MD; Enrica Causin, RN; Giulia Paviotti, MD; Patrizia Marzari, RN; Sergio Demarini, MD. Pediatrics, Volume 142, Issue 3.