“The benefits of breastfeeding outweigh the risk of exposure to most therapeutic agents via human milk. Although most drugs and therapeutic agents do not pose a risk to the mother or nursing infant, careful consideration of the in- dividual risk/benefit ratio is necessary for certain agents, particularly those that are concentrated in human milk or result in exposures in the infant that may be clinically significant on the basis of relative infant dose or detect- able serum concentrations. Caution is also advised for drugs and agents with unproven benefits, with long half-lives that may lead to drug accumulation, or with known toxicity to the mother or infant. In addition, specific infants may be more vulnerable to adverse events because of immature organ function (eg, preterm infants or neonates) or underlying medical conditions.”
– Source: The Transfer of Drugs and Therapeutics Into Human Breast Milk: An Update on Selected Topics Hari Cheryl Sachs and COMMITTEE ON DRUGS. Pediatrics; originally published online August 26, 2013; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2013-1985
The preceding is the conclusion to a new report released by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which has given birth to a number of ecstatic headlines – “Most medications safe for breastfeeding moms”. “Medications of nursing mothers do not harm babies”. “Top Pediatrician’s Group Assures Most Drugs Safe While Breastfeeding”. Reading these, one might assume that a plethora of new research had been released, provoking the AAP to make a blanket statement about risk and benefits.
One should read the actual report before one gets too excited.
Other than the introduction and conclusion, which basically explain that studies are limited on most medications and how they affect a nursing infant, but that the benefits of breastfeeding outweigh the risks, the report reads like one giant warning.
Let’s start with antidepressants:
“Previous statements from the AAP categorized the effect of psychoactive drugs on the nursing infant as “unknown but may be of concern.” Although new data have been published since 2001, information on the long-term effects of these compounds is still limited. Most publications regarding psychoactive drugs describe the pharmacokinetics in small numbers of lactating women with short-term observational studies of their infants. In addition, interpretation of the effects on the infant from the small number of longer-term studies is confounded by prenatal treatment or exposure to multiple therapies. For these reasons, the long-term effect on the developing infant is still largely unknown…Because of the long half-life of some of these compounds and/or their metabolites, coupled with an infant’s immature hepatic and renal function, nursing infants may have measurable amounts of the drug or its metabolites in plasma and potentially in neural tissue. Infant plasma concentrations that exceed 10% of therapeutic maternal plasma concentrations have been reported for a number of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors…”
As stated in the first sentence of this section, the evidence hasn’t really changed from when the last AAP statement on drugs and human milk was released, circa 2001. But the conclusion sure has. In 2001, the authors advised that “(n)ursing mothers should be informed that if they take one of these drugs, the infant will be exposed to it. Because these drugs affect neurotransmitter function in the developing central nervous system, it may not be possible to predict long-term neurodevelopmental effects.” In 2013, the author states “Mothers who desire to breastfeed their infant(s) while taking these agents should be counseled about the benefits of breastfeeding as well as the potential risk that the infant may be exposed to clinically significant levels and that the long-term effects of this exposure are unknown.”(p. e799)
This is where I start getting nervous. The last thing I ever want to do is discourage someone who needs antidepressants or another lifesaving medication from breastfeeding – especially considering I personally chose to take the small risk and feed my newborn breastmilk while I was on Zoloft (one of the many SSRIs that are categorized in both reports as “Psychoactive Drugs With Infant Serum Concentrations Exceeding 10% of Maternal Plasma Concentrations”, meaning that the levels of the drug getting into a newborn via breastmilk are clinically significant and of potential concern for a growing neonate). These are the risk/benefit scenarios we often discuss here on FFF – decisions that parents need to make (and deserve to make), armed with solid information and free from paternalistic admonishments that don’t have real world meaning. But I don’t feel that the new AAP statement – or the way that the media is reporting it – is allowing for a truly informed decision.
Notice the emphasis of the newer AAP statement – the advice given is to counsel the mother on the benefits of breastfeeding first, and then inform her of the potential risks and unknowns of nursing on her medication. Anyone with a grade-school understanding of psychology can figure out what that would sound like. (“Breastfeeding is extremely important and will save your child from every ill imaginable! But I should warn you that if you choose to nurse while on Zoloft, we can’t confirm or deny that your baby may turn into a werewolf when he reaches puberty. Your choice!”)
Maybe I’m arguing semantics here, but why couldn’t they avoid the paternalism of both the 2001 and the 2013 statement and simply advise doctors to inform parents of the risks and benefits of both feeding options, as well as the risks of nursing on medications, in an accessible, understandable way? And then help them mitigate the risks, no matter what path they choose?
Moving on… painkillers. The AAP is now agreeing with what I freaked out about in Bottled Up – Vicodin and newly postpartum, breastfeeding women are not a match made in heaven. And before you post-C-section mamas beg for the Darvocet, that won’t fly, either. Turns out that infants whose mothers used these commonly prescribed drugs for managing postpartum pain have popped up with cases of unexplained apnea, bradycardia, cyanosis, sedation, and hypotonia; one infant died from a Vicodin overdose after ingesting the drug through mother’s milk. But hey- you can take (moderate) doses of Tylenol and Advil to manage that post-surgical pain, so no worries.
Are you starting to see why “Medications of nursing moms do not harm babies” might not be the most accurate headline?
Ummm…. Herbal remedies! Those have to be okay, right? They’re natural, after all!
Not so fast, sugar.
“Despite the frequent use of herbal products in breastfeeding women (up to 43% of lactating mothers in a 2004 survey), reliable information on the safety of many herbal products is lacking…The use of several herbal products may be harmful, including kava and yohimbe. For example, the FDA has issued a warning that links kava supplementation to severe liver damage. Breastfeeding mothers should not use yohimbe because of reports of associated fatalities in children…Safety data are lacking for many herbs commonly used during breastfeeding, such as chamomile,black cohosh, blue cohosh, chastetree, echina- cea, ginseng, gingko, Hypericum (St John’s wort), and valerian. Adverse events have been reported in both breastfeeding infants and mothers. For example, St John’s wort may cause colic, drowsiness, or lethargy in the breastfed infant…Prolonged use of fenugreek may require monitoring of coagulation status and serum glucose concentrations. For these reasons, these aforementioned herbal products are not recommended for use by nursing women.”
Wait. It gets worse. You know those galactagogues you were prescribed to increase your milk supply? Flush them down the toilet, says the AAP. The safety of Domperidone, for example, “has not been established.”
“The FDA issued a warning in June 2004 regarding use of domperidone in breast- feeding women because of safety concerns based on published reports of arrhythmia, cardiac arrest, and sudden death associated with intravenous therapy. Furthermore, treatment with oral domperidone is associated with QT prolongation in children and infants.”
The authors aren’t overly enthusiastic about other galactagogues, either, and instead encourage moms struggling with supply to “use non-pharmacologic measures to increase milk supply, such as ensuring proper technique, using massage therapy, increasing the frequency of milk expression, prolonging the duration of pumping, and maximizing emotional support.”
I’ve read the report 10 times now, trying to see where they could possibly come to the conclusion that this is a game changer; that it is at all newsworthy; that this is what counts as progress. To my untrained eye, it appears to be little more than a re-framing of old information to fit in better with the “breast is best at all costs” mantra, rather than a landmark “update” of an antiquated policy paper. Based on this report, how are pediatricians supposed to tell patients, in good conscience, that there is adequate evidence that it’s safe to breastfeed on “nearly all” medications?
For most of the meds in question, it probably is safe- similarly to how the risks of infant formula are scary on paper and far less daunting in real life, I honestly believe that we’d be seeing a lot of seriously messed-up kids if your absolute risk of nursing while on antidepressants was high. Just like many of us have made carefully weighed decisions to formula feed, feeling the weight of misery in one hand and balancing that with an increased risk of ear infections in the other, so shall we handle questions of breastfeeding and medications. The problem is not with moms making choices based on the facts we have- the problem is when respected, policy-creating organizations create false narratives that render us unable to make those choices in a truly informed way.
The report leans heavily on the work of Thomas Hale and LactMed, fantastic resources for research on these issues. I’m grateful there are people dedicated to focusing on this research – research that matters so much more than yet another associative study attempting to show that breastfed babies are smarter than formula fed ones. We desperately need more research on how commonly prescribed medications affect breastfeeding infants, not so that we can “forbid” women from breastfeeding, but so that we can help them reach their breastfeeding goals. This might mean timing medications so that they are mostly metabolized prior to nursing, or pumping for some feeds, or even -god forbid- using a little formula or donor milk for the feeds that have a higher amount of the drug coming through milk (these are tough things to figure out, sometimes, as people metabolize differently, as do babies, but it’s a good goal to have on the horizon). Maybe it means finding better medications. Or it might just mean allowing parents to ponder their own risk/benefit scenarios and respecting their decisions, whatever those may be.
Before we can do that, though, someone has to remind the AAP that they are doctors first, breastfeeding advocates second. Let the science speak, not the zealotry, and maybe we can start helping parents make truly “informed” choices.