Harmful Chemicals Called PFAS May Lead to Early Weaning, Research Finds

Woman breastfeeding her infant

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Key Takeaways

  • A chemical called PFAS may lead to early weaning.
  • PFAS are found in many everyday products, such as cookware.
  • Avoiding products made with PFAS may help you extend breastfeeding and offer your child its many benefits.

A harmful chemical found in many consumer products may negatively affect your breastfeeding journey. Exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) may increase your risk of weaning earlier than planned.

New research published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism found that women with higher exposures to PFAS may be 20% more likely to stop breastfeeding early.

Knowing to avoid PFAS may help parents breastfeed as long as they would like. For other parents, this new information may help explain why they weaned earlier than intended. It can hopefully provide reassurance that these parents that they are not to blame. "For some, it might be nice to know that there is a biological explanation as to why they are unable to succeed with breastfeeding," notes Clara Amalie Gade Timmermann, MSc, PhD, lead study author.

What Are PFAS?

PFAS are man-made chemicals that repel oil and water. They are found in many consumer products such as non-stick cookware, stain-resistant fabrics, carpets, food packaging, cosmetics, and more. Most PFAS do not break down and they can accumulate over time in our bodies.

Though they may be helpful for cooking or keeping your clothing clean, PFAS are dangerous in large amounts. "PFAS exposure can be harmful to humans, including links to hypertension and preeclampsia during pregnancy, decreases in infant birth weights, and liver or kidney diseases," explains Grace Dwyer, MS, MA, RD, LDN, IBCLC, a registered dietician, lactation consultant, and a clinical project manager at AngelEye Health.

We now know that exposure to high levels of PFAS during pregnancy can also lead to early weaning.

Details About the Study

The researchers took blood samples from a group of pregnant women and measured their PFAS levels. The women then provided information about their breastfeeding status on a weekly basis and completed more detailed questionnaires on the topic at three and 18 months after giving birth.

The results indicated that exposure to high levels of PFAS was linked to early unintended weaning. These women were 20% more likely to stop breastfeeding early.

According to the authors, early weaning has traditionally been associated with psychological factors. This study brings to light how physical factors may also impact a parent's breastfeeding journey, and encourages us to be mindful of PFAS exposure.

Avoiding PFAS is certainly an important takeaway, but so is the realization that some breastfeeding parents simply will not be able to continue as long as they would like. Parents who tried their best to breastfeed should not blame themselves. "Promoting breastfeeding is not only about convincing parents to breastfeed," says Dr. Timmermann. "It is also about avoiding parental exposure to environmental chemicals, avoiding chemicals inhibiting breastfeeding, and avoiding the transfer of chemicals to the infant via breastmilk."

Clara Amalie Gade Timmermann, MSc, PhD

Promoting breastfeeding is not only about convincing parents to breastfeed, it is also about avoiding parental exposure to environmental chemicals, avoiding chemicals inhibiting breastfeeding, and avoiding the transfer of chemicals to the infant via breastmilk.

— Clara Amalie Gade Timmermann, MSc, PhD

How Can I Limit My Exposure to PFAS While Pregnant or Breastfeeding?

Knowing which products to avoid can help you reduce your exposure to PFAS. Dwyer suggests skipping nonstick cookware in favor of cast iron, stainless steel, glass, or ceramic. She also suggests buying fabrics and carpets that are not stain-resistant and choosing cosmetics and personal care items that do not contain ingredients whose names begin with "fluoro" or "perfluoro".

Avoiding exposure to PFAS is not always easy since there are several thousand different types of PFAS in hundreds of various types of products. Trying not to buy contaminated products may be helpful in encouraging manufacturers to choose other materials. "In highly polluted areas, the public guidelines should be followed," notes Dr. Timmermann. "The rest of us should avoid using repellents for shoes, clothes, and furniture and ask for products that do not contain PFAS. Public demand for product safety will push the manufactures to avoid using these chemicals in the long run."

Clara Amalie Gade Timmermann, study author

Public demand for product safety will push the manufactures to avoid using these chemicals in the long run.

— Clara Amalie Gade Timmermann, study author

What This Means For You

Breastfeeding has many benefits for babies and toddlers. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends breastfeeding for at least one year and longer if desired by both the baby and the breastfeeding parent.

In light of this recent study, parents wishing to breastfeed for as long as possible should make an effort to avoid exposing themselves and their babies to PFAS. Also, parents who unintentionally weaned early may find some comfort knowing that external factors may have played a role that was out of their control.

A Word From Verywell

There are many factors involved in the breastfeeding journey. PFAS is just one of many obstacles that many prevent parents from breastfeeding as long as they would like to. Ultimately, what matters is that your baby gets fed. That may be with breast milk, formula, or a combination of the two.

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7 Sources
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