The byproducts of motherhood have always been considered wildly powerful medicine: people eat placenta, bank cord blood, and inject pregnant women’s urine for … weight loss? Really? It’s also long been believed that breast milk can cure conjunctivitis in babies, which, although decidedly less gross than almost all of those other things, is sadly just as unproven.
Conjunctivitis, henceforth known as “pinkeye” to give spellcheck a rest, is an inflammation of the membrane surrounding the eye that causing redness, soreness, and, well, goop. It can be the result of bacteria, or blocked tear ducts, but it’s often caused by a virus that’s wicked infectious. It’s not clear exactly when breast milk was first proposed as a cure, though it’s probably safe to rule out the “Mom With Exceptionally Poor Nipple Aim” theory. Still, many mothers swear that a little milk can go a long way in curing pinkeye in babies. So … does it?
Research seeking to prove such claims is inconclusive. There are 3 tests that are generally cited, all of which indicate that some kinds of breast milk (colostrum, as opposed to mature milk) can be effective on some kinds of eye infections (specific bacteria, as opposed to viruses). None of these studies, however, were particularly rigorous.
One was deeply flawed; it included a segregated control and treatment group in different wards of the same hospital, each of which had gone through specific birth processes. Another was done on colonized bacteria in petri dishes, which are poor substitutes for the human eye. The best study of the 3 was conducted on blocked tear ducts and showed that breast milk did seem effective, but the sample size was small. Of test subjects. Not breast milk.
One thing all doctors seem to agree on: breast milk definitely won’t do any harm to a baby’s eyes, or yours if you catch the kid’s pinkeye, which, as noted, is scarily likely. Most simple cases clear up on their own within 10 days. The not-so-simple cases, though, can get ugly. Doctors agree on that, too — and that you shouldn’t hesitate to call them for some non-breast milk assistance.