When your baby was born, you probably expected your breasts to leak some milk. (It’s pretty much par for the course if you’re breastfeeding.)
However, you might not have expected to see a milky substance coming from your newborn’s nipples.
This phenomenon is commonly called witch’s milk (or neonatal galactorrhea if you prefer the scientific name). Seeing it may lead to many questions: What’s causing this? Should I take my child to the doctor? Is this normal?
Before your head starts spinning with questions, let us reassure you: It’s not common, but it’s normal and no cause for concern. Here’s more about it.
The term “witch’s milk” can seem scary — and honestly, we don’t like it and will stop using it here.
It comes from a 17th century belief that “witches” would come steal this milk for use in their magic. In fact, during this time in history, infants with the condition were “milked” to express the fluid before a witch would come collect it.
Doctors noticed that this resulted in inflammation and abscesses. As such, around the 19th century, they began to heavily discourage the practice. (People in some parts of the world still follow the tradition.)
If you’ve noticed galactorrhea in your baby, you might be wondering:
- Who experiences it? Both male and female babies can experience neonatal galactorrhea. It’s more common in full-term infants than preterm babies, though. This is because premature babies tend to have little breast tissue.
- How common is it? It’s rare. Unfortunately, most research on the condition is from before 1990, which isn’t ideal for giving stats. But in
one study from the 1980s, around 5 percent of newborns had neonatal galactorrhea.
- How long does it last? This can vary, but neonatal galactorrhea typically goes away by 2 months of age.
Generally, treatment isn’t necessary. The milky discharge coming from your newborn’s nipples should be temporary and resolve on its own. However, it’s important to keep an eye on the discharge for suspicious signs and symptoms.
What is suspicious discharge? It’s typically one-sided, spontaneous, and persistent.
Nipple discharge that occurs on both sides of the body and isn’t spontaneous (meaning it only occurs when the nipples are manipulated or stimulated) is usually considered OK.
You may be concerned if you notice bloody discharge. Bloody discharge can be an indicator of breast cancer, but this is very rare in infants. It’s more likely due to stimulation and irritation at a young age. Many times this symptom doesn’t require treatment.
You should seek treatment if the milky discharge remains persistent beyond 2 months of age or the area becomes red and tender, although this is generally a rare occurrence. Also, be sure to make your pediatrician aware of the situation at your 1-month well-baby visit.
Please note: Massaging or otherwise stimulating the breast tissue is heavily discouraged, as this can lead to complications that require additional treatment.
The most common cause of neonatal galactorrhea is what’s known as transplacental maternal hormone.
In less medical terms, the milky discharge can occur when your baby is in the placenta and high levels of maternal estrogen pass into their bloodstream. This can cause your baby’s breast tissue to become enlarged, which may cause galactorrhea.
High levels of estrogen in breast milk after your baby is born can also contribute. (It doesn’t normally mean you need to wean your baby from breastfeeding early, though)
Some other potential causes of neonatal galactorrhea in newborns include:
- certain medications
- cannabis use
- cancer (although its very, very rarely the cause)
Most of the time, neonatal galactorrhea is nothing to worry about. However, if the cause is related to a thyroid problem or cancer, additional concerns exist, and treatment is required.
Any time neonatal galactorrhea occurs, parents or caregivers should avoid stimulating the nipple or encouraging milk production. Drawing milk out can increase discharge production and irritate breast tissue, leading to prolonged lactation, abscesses, or mastitis.
Mastitis and breast abscesses aren’t common in newborns. However, when mastitis appears, it’s usually caused by bacteria and requires antibiotics.
Although it can be startling to see a milky discharge coming from your baby’s nipples, there’s likely no reason to be overly concerned. You’ll just want to watch out for certain risk factors, and of course, speak with your pediatrician about it.