A few weeks ago, Chelsea Pryce was dealing with something many of us are unfortunately faced with this time of year — a sick kid. The Canadian mom, who is also a doula, is tandem breastfeeding her two children, 2-year-old Osiris, and 3-month-old Hendrix. Osiris was sick, but Hendrix wasn’t, so the mom decided to keep Osiris on one breast and Hendrix on the other so that the two children wouldn’t share germs.
Later that day, when Pryce went to pump, she claims that something quite striking had happened to the appearance of her breastmilk. The milk from the breast that Osiris (her sick child) had been nursing from was noticeably yellow, while the milk from the breast her baby had nursed from was white.
The photo, which Pryce posted on her Facebook page February 2, has now gone viral, with 38K likes and 28K shares to date. Many Facebook users are taking the photo as a testament to the amazing power of breast milk, and how it changes when kids are sick by providing the necessary antibodies and anti-viral agents for their speedy recovery.
As the mom notes in her Facebook post, “each breast produced perfectly tailored milk for each kid.” She then goes on to exclaim what many of us think when we see a photo like hers: “Our bodies are amazing.”
Hell yeah they are. Mom’s bodies are truly amazing, aren’t they?
It is actually well-known that breast milk responds to illness by changing its composition. The popular, evidence-based breastfeeding website Kelly Mom explains how this amazing process works with fascinating detail:
“When you have a contagious illness such as a cold, flu, or other mild virus, your baby was exposed to the illness before you even knew you were sick. Your milk will not transmit your illness to baby, but it does have antibodies in it that are specific to your illness (plus anything else you or baby have been exposed to) — they’ll help prevent baby from getting sick, or if he does get sick, he’ll probably not be as sick as you.”
Pretty astonishing, huh?
The immune response that Kelly Mom describes happens when the mother herself is exposed to a virus — producing her own antibodies to it, and then transmitting them to her baby via breast milk. What isn’t so well-known, though, is if there’s a way that a baby or child could directly tell the breast that he or she is sick, and thereby cause one breast in particular to change composition, as Pryce seems to have witnessed.
There’s a fascinating theory out there that a baby’s saliva might somehow enter the breast and communicate with the mom’s body to fight infection if a baby is sick. But according to Science News, this is still a hypothesis, not clinically proven as of yet.
The closest bit of research that seems to explain Pryce’s experience is a 2013 study published in Clinical & Translational Immunology, that states that both maternal and infant factors cause breast milk to stimulate an immunological response to illness. The study says specifically that illnesses in moms and babies cause a huge spike in the number of leukocyte cells (94 percent out of the total cells in breast milk!). After an illness, the leukocyte concentration goes back to normal levels, according to the study.
The study also explains that colostrum, the yellow-colored milk that babies receive at birth (known to be high in immune factors) is also incredibly high in leukocytes, but that at 1-2 week postpartum, the level decreases.
All of this is say that something like this might be the reason that the milk that Pryce pumped when her son was sick looked so different from her baby’s milk. That pumped milk sure looks a lot like colostrum, and it does give reason to wonder if the yellow color of the breast milk is a sign that it somehow converted to a colostrum-like substance in reaction to the child’s illness.
Of course, the mechanism of how it happened doesn’t really matter: If the story unfolded as Pryce outlined, it truly is further proof of the incredible powers of breast milk. And perhaps in a few years, the reasons behind something like this will be further uncovered. (After all, scientists have only touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the miracles of breast milk.)
Either way, this photo, and the way that it has caught on should be an inspiration to all of you breastfeeding and pumping moms out there. All that you are doing really does pay off. So major kudos to you all!