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Breast Feeding

Breastfeeding and radiation

02/25/2000

Question:

Can excessive radiation affect breastmild and if so how and why does it?

Answer:

To what type of radiation do you refer and what do you mean by "excessive"? For example, exposure to the ultraviolet rays of the sun or to X-ray does not affect breast milk or breast milk production, so there is no reason to interrupt breastfeeding for either type of exposure.

Exposure to the radioactive isotopes used for diagnosing or treating certain physical conditions usually requires an interruption of breastfeeding for hours to weeks, depending on the specific agent, the length of its use and its half-life. Many women express their milk by pumping their breasts and then dispose of this milk until it is again safe to breastfeed or give their pumped milk to their babies. This action often is referred to as "pumping and dumping" (the breast milk).

Current exposure to the radiation used to treat certain cancers usually is not considered compatible with breastfeeding because related compounds/antimetabolites are excreted through the breast and are cumulative, which poses a potential danger for an infant`s health. However, many women have breastfed their infants if they were born after the completion of radiation therapy. Some of these women experienced decreased milk production in one breast if radiation was directed at that breast and it destroyed some of the milk-making tissue. Still, a woman can continue to breastfeed, but the baby`s growth simply will depend more on milk production in the unaffected breast. (One breast usually can provide enough to fully breastfeed one infant.)

I hope this answers your question. If you need more information, I would be happy to respond but I will need more specific information about the situation.

Reference: Lawrence, RA & Lawrence, RM (1999). Breastfeeding: A guide for the medical profession (5th ed.). St. Louis: Mosby.

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Response by:

Karen Kerkhoff Gromada, MSN, RN, IBCLC
Adjunct Clinical Instructor
College of Nursing
University of Cincinnati