As I breastfed my baby, running my hand over his tiny chest, I noticed something was amiss. I thought perhaps there was a ball of fabric pilled inside his onesie, or that a rogue blueberry from his older sibling had been dropped down his shirt. I swept my hand beneath the collar of his onesie but there was no object to be found. There, just under the soft skin of his chest, was a rock-hard lump the size of a marble. My mind raced, and I felt ill.
My rainbow baby, who had been born on the heels of two miscarriages, had something terribly wrong with him. I thought it was childhood cancer, or something equally painful and unjust, that had come to take my last baby from me. At the time I didn't realize breastfeeding conditions could manifest this way on my son's body. Of course, it happened on a holiday weekend, when I was unable to get a hold of my son's pediatrician in the moment to figure out what was happening and what we should do about it. There were no other signs of distress — in fact, if I hadn't put my hand on his chest I wouldn't have even known it was there. But now that I knew, I couldn't stop myself from worrying. I didn’t dare Google the symptom, my mind already swirling with thoughts of imminent death.
Though if I had Googled what I'd seen my son's chest, I would have been put to ease at once, because apparently “witch's milk” is a pretty common phenomena. When I finally reached my doctor, ready to be burdened with horrific news, he told me not only was witch’s milk not life threatening, it was nearly as common as cradle cap in newborns and equally harmless. He assured me I didn't even need to bring my baby in to the office to be sure of what was wrong. If there were no other symptoms, he said, then it was witch's milk for sure. It was nothing to fret about, despite my hysterical worrying.
Medically known as "galactorrhea" or neonatal milk, witch’s milk is lactation that occurs in newborns up to 2 months old, according to the Mayo Clinic. The cause is quite simple: the hormones passed from mother to baby during breastfeeding can cause milk deposits beneath the nipple (in either or both sides) of the baby. Some infants even secrete milk, and the phenomena is equally present in male and female newborns — though I imagine it’s a bit stranger for a mom of a baby boy who suddenly has leaky nipples.
I'd read all the baby books. I'd breastfed multiple babies. Which left me wondering: Why was this something that nobody warned me about? Why hadn’t I heard about it when I went to my lactation consultant? Why hadn’t I heard about it in my newborn-care class? Why wasn’t I ready for this?
If the milk is expressed by hand, much like in breastfeeding women, the supply will increase and cause the breast to swell. Typically doctors will leave the lump alone, since expressing milk can lead to an increase in production and massaging can lead to mastitis — just as painful for a baby as it would be for a breastfeeding mom. Certain cultures still try to drain the milk, believing that witches will suckle on the infant’s nipple if it is not emptied (hence the term “witch’s milk”). Luckily, I never tried to mess with the lump, because seeing drainage would have made me so much more hysterical.
The truth is, the level of hysteria I did have was totally unnecessary. The lump was gone within a couple weeks and never returned. It really was no big deal. Yet, I'd read all the baby books. I'd breastfed multiple babies. Which left me wondering: Why was this something that nobody warned me about? Why hadn’t I heard about it when I went to my lactation consultant? Why hadn’t I heard about it in my newborn-care class? Why wasn’t I ready for this?
For a condition that would obviously seem so alarming to an anxious mom, you’d think that somewhere along the way there would be a bit of warning.
I never brought it up with the pediatrician again, feeling a bit embarrassed by my overreaction, though when I talked to family and friends about it they were all shocked as well. How else were you supposed to react when something so seemingly scary happens? Why wouldn't you be alarmed?
My baby’s witch’s milk was the source of so much unnecessary worry, all because my doctor and everything I'd ever read never warned me that this was a common side effect of breastfeeding my baby. I wish I'd known that this was a normal thing so I didn’t spend a whole holiday weekend worrying over the untimely fate of my newborn instead of enjoying time with friends and family. For a condition that would obviously seem so alarming to an anxious mom, you’d think that somewhere along the way there would be a bit of warning. So let me be your warning so your mind doesn’t instantly turn to dark places of baby tumors: witch’s milk is no big deal, as long as you know what’s happening.