Body Modifications and Breastfeeding: What You Need to Know

by Robyn Roche-Paull, BS, IBCLC

tattood hip momBody Modifications include branding, scarification, tattooing, piercing, and other body art. They've been around nearly as long as breastfeeding. Archaeologists, historians and body art practitioners note that tattooing and body piercing have been performed, in one form or another, worldwide for over 5000 years!

However, within the last 20-30 years, body modifications have exploded in popularity, with people both young and old getting body mods. More than 20 million Americans, half of whom are women, have one or more tattoos, up to 30% have piercings, and many have both. This surge in body modifications shows no signs of slowing down in the near future.

Body modifications, particularly piercings and tattoos, are a mainstream activity practiced by policemen, schoolteachers, and stay-at-home mothers alike. Many women get tattoos and piercings as a form of self-expression or to commemorate a special occasion or life event. More women today have or are getting body modifications at the same time many are also becoming mothers.

Along with the rise in body modifications, breastfeeding has surged in popularity. With breastfeeding rates climbing worldwide it's not surprising that many new mothers who either have body modifications or who may be contemplating them in the future might have questions about their safety and breastfeeding. So what's a hip, tattooed or pierced and breastfeeding (or soon-to-be) mom to do? Is there breastfeeding during or after tattooing and nipple piercings?

Modification Safety While Breastfeeding

The American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the American College of Nurse-Midwives have made no statements on nipple piercings or tattoos and breastfeeding.

Nipple Piercings

Nipple piercings, while a favorite among body mod fans, require patience and aren't without risk. They can take up to a full year to heal completely, with infections and rejections the most common problems. Be aware that repeated piercings, due to rejection can create scar tissue that might block milk ducts.

If you are contemplating getting your nipples pierced and also want to have a baby, plan the piercing at least 12-18 months before you want to get pregnant. That allows the piercing time to heal and create a fistula, or channel, before the bodily and hormonal changes that accompany pregnancy occur. It also will allow for removal of the jewelry during breastfeeding without the worry of the channel closing up. The nipple(s) must have time to heal and cannot have any saliva enter the open wound and the jewelry must stay in place during the healing period -- next to impossible to achieve with a young baby feeding frequently.

Many women who already have nipple piercings are concerned about their ability to breastfeed in the future. Breastfeeding isn't generally affected by established nipple piercings. Human nipples have between 8-12 nipple pores so it's unlikely that a well-healed piercing will block all of the pores. However, some recent research points to a few reported cases of abnormal milk production in women with nipple piercings due to possible duct obstruction.

Often women find that when they remove their jewelry for a feeding milk leaks out the piercing. This can be a problem if the flow is too fast for your baby. Be proactive about preventing or reducing any engorgement and be on the lookout for blocked ducts or mastitis, all of which may be exacerbated by nipple piercings.

It's best to remove your jewelry for each feeding to reduce the risk of your baby aspirating or choking, although some women do nurse with flexible PTFE barbells in place. Removing your jewelry also reduces the risk of latching-on problems, damaging the inside of your baby's mouth or passing bacteria from the jewelry to your baby.

If you chose to keep your jewelry out permanently until your baby is weaned, be aware that even a fully healed piercing may close and some women have noticed nipple pain in a previously pierced nipple while nursing. You can keep the piercing open by inserting an insertion taper on a regular basis. If the channel closes completely wait at least three months post-weaning before re-piercing.

If you face any problems with breastfeeding be sure to contact your local LLL Leader or an IBCLC for help. See a qualified piercer for problems with your piercing.

Tattoos

Tattoos are a permanent form of artwork etched into the flesh and are not without risk. As with piercings, local and systemic infections are the most prevalent risks of tattooing. Already present tattoos, on the breast or elsewhere, do not affect breastfeeding. The possibility of the ink migrating into the mother's blood plasma and then into the milk-making cells of the breast, is next to impossible. It's possible to have allergic reactions to the tattoo inks. They aren't regulated by the FDA.

Many, if not most, professional tattoo artists won't knowingly tattoo a woman who is breastfeeding or will actively discourage a new mother from doing so. They feel that the body needs time to heal the tattoo and that's harder to do so when the body is producing milk. It also lessens the possibility of any infections from being passed on to the baby. A newborn baby is far more vulnerable to any possible changes in breastmilk than a nursing toddler.

Going to a professional tattoo shop following Universal Precautions also lessens the risk that an infection might be acquired. Anecdotal evidence from various discussion boards related to body modification show that the majority of mothers go ahead and get tattoos while breastfeeding with no ill effects on the baby or mother.

Removing a Tattoo

Is it safe to have a tattoo removed while breastfeeding? An estimated 20% of those who get tattoos later regret the decision and wish to have them removed. Tattoo removal is accomplished with the use of Q-switched lasers. The laser produces short pulses of intense light that pass through the skin to be absorbed by the tattoo pigment. The laser energy causes the tattoo pigment to fragment into smaller particles, which are picked up by the body's immune system and filtered out. The particles are considered too big to pass into breastmilk.

Universal Precautions

Whether you're contemplating a tattoo or getting your nipples pierced it's very important that your tattoo artist or piercer follow Universal Precautions. These precautions include sterilization of the tattoo machine and piercing implements using an autoclave, single-use inks, ink cups, gloves and needles, bagging of equipment to avoid cross contamination, thorough hand washing with disinfectant soap and the wearing gloves when performing the tattoo or piercing (Armstrong, et al., 2006). Any jewelry that is to be inserted should be kept sterile before insertions as well.

It's important to screen the tattooist and the shop carefully, checking with the local health department for local laws and regulations. Reputable body artists support regulations and legislation to keep their customers safe and to legitimize the profession.

Robyn Roche-Paull, BS, IBCLC, is the Author of Breastfeeding in Combat Boots and Founder of the companion website. In her practice she primarily helps military mothers balance returning to active duty while continuing to breastfeed. Robyn is not only an advocate for active duty military mothers who wish to combine breastfeeding with military service, she is also a US Navy Veteran who successfully breastfed her son for over a year while on active duty as an aircraft mechanic. She is the mother of three long-term breastfed children and wife to her husband, a Chief Petty Officer in the US Navy.

Copyright © Robyn Roche-Paull, BS, IBCLC. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org. Photo credit: Dreamstime.com Agency.