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Why diluting breastmilk can be dangerous

A Georgia couple has been charged with diluting breast milk and killing their 10-week-old baby.

While moms are instructed to not dilute infant formula, you should also know that adding water to breast milk can be dangerous, too — a terrible truth the couple learned after their infant daughter died. The watered-down breast milk threw her electrolytes out of whack and caused her brain to swell, and she passed away.

Although the article doesn’t cite specific circumstances, it sounds like the couple either received breast milk donations, or bought breast milk to give to their baby. Diluting breast milk with water would definitely stretch its volume if you didn’t think you had enough to give her, but as this baby’s parents found out, it’s not only not ideal, but it’s extremely dangerous.

Dr. Ashanti Woods, pediatrician at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland, says parents should never dilute breast milk or formula. “A baby’s electrolytes are at fixed levels and do not adjust well to change,” he says. “These low levels of electrolytes can result in confusion, lethargy, seizures or death.”

Rachelle Lesteshen, Breastfeeding USA Counselor, agrees. “Breast milk contains the perfect amount of nutrients for a baby’s growth,” she says. “Stretching breast milk by adding water will dilute the necessary nutrients and can cause serious health risks such as excess weight loss.” According to Kellymom, breastfeeding provides all the fluids a baby needs (even when it’s very hot outside) as long as she is allowed to nurse as much as she wants.

Dr. Woods also stresses that parents should not be tempted to dilute infant formula, either. He says caregivers should always read the directions on the back of the formula container, because preparation instructions vary based on the type of formula and brand. “Understandably, some parents, when they notice they are getting low on milk, may consider adding less powder to a baby’s bottle, which ultimately changes or dilutes the baby’s feed into more of a water bottle and less of a milk bottle,” he notes. “Many pediatricians would agree that babies should not start water until 9 months of age as babies need the nutrients (calories/fat) that are in milk and not in water.”

It’s easy to demonize this small family, but there’s a chance that they didn’t know that there were resources they could have used to keep their baby healthy. “If you are faced with not having enough breast milk for your child, it is important to consult with your pediatrician and IBCLC (lactation consultant) for support and advice on appropriate safe supplementation options,” Lesteshen says. You can also contact your local Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program for help.

This tragedy, while avoidable, is one that we can learn from. Help spread the word about diluting infant milk, no matter what its source, and help others who need it contact the resources they need.

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