Mallory Smothers wrote an ode to the germ-fighting powers of breast milk on Valentine’s Day that’s already been shared more than 65,000 times. Like most of us, Smothers knows breast milk changes to fight illnesses and infections, but she’d never actually seen the difference until she pumped a bag of breast milk while her daughter was fighting a cold. When Smothers snapped a picture of a bag of her usual milk next to a bag of the milk she pumped while her daughter was sick, the differences were striking. The regular milk was a pale milky white, but the germ-fighting milk was a deep, yellowish orange.
For Smothers, it was a closed case. She attributed the deeper color to more powerful germ-busting properties in her breast milk, and presumably so did all the people who helped her post go viral. As Smothers pointed out, a 2013 study published in Clinical and Translational Immunology found that infections in a breastfeeding infant rapidly trigger higher levels of leukocytes, the white blood cells that fight disease.
Smothers said the milk changes because the baby’s backwash is used by the mother’s body to detect that something is amiss. She might be right, but the science about baby backwash is far from settled. While studies have suggested that babies’ backwashed milk may travel into the mother’s bloodstream to produce targeted antibodies that are then given back to babies through breast milk, these ideas are still just theories. Still, whatever the mechanism that triggers breast milk to change in response to a sick baby, there’s little doubt the milk itself changes.
If you’re breastfeeding a sick baby and your milk color doesn’t change, don’t panic. There’s no proof the milk color itself is tied to higher levels of immune cells. It’s possible that Smothers’ milk was a different color for reasons that have nothing to do with fighting off infections. Normal breast milk can have blue, yellow, orange or even pink tones. Some experts say breast milk composition changes rapidly in response to the needs of infants throughout the day. In that case, it’s probably not shocking that bags of pumped breast milk aren’t always the same color, and Smothers’ orangey milk may have more to do with what she ate that day than her daughter’s cold.
Even if some of the claims Smothers made aren’t quite proven by science yet, it’s great to see the health benefits of breastfeeding going viral. Moms have known this for thousands of years, but having studies to back us up is even better. Thanks, science!