Breast milk is a truly amazing substance. Your milk contains everything that your baby needs to thrive and grow, including living immune cells, fats, carbohydrates and protein. For all its benefits, however, breast milk does have the potential to leave unsightly yellowish stains on your baby’s or your own clothing.
Are these stained items doomed to a permanently discolored fate or an untimely trip to the garbage? In most cases, fortunately, the answer is no. These simple pointers can help you learn how to remove breast milk stains from most pieces of clothing and keep you and your baby happily wearing your favorite items.
Why Does Breast Milk Stain?
The protein component in your breast milk is the primary culprit when it comes to staining clothing and other fabrics. A breast milk stain falls into the category of protein-based stains, and it shares this classification with substances like egg yolks, grass and some other bodily fluids.
Particularly in the presence of almost any degree of extra heat, some chemical bonds in your milk start to break apart in an irreversible process known as denaturation. Denatured proteins often coagulate or become sticky, and these coagulated molecules can penetrate fabric fibers to become stubborn stains.
What Not to Do When Trying to Get Breast Milk out of Your Clothes
Unfortunately, good intentions don’t always equal good results. Here are the things you definitely want to avoid when dealing with fresh or set-in breast milk stains.
As previously mentioned, proteins have the capability to coagulate and become sticky in even moderately warm temperatures. Rinsing or washing your stained items with hot or even warm water not only won’t take the stain away, but it will also probably make it worse.
Letting the breast milk dry and set in
Once your milk has the chance to dry and penetrate fabric fibers, it can become much more difficult to remove. Additionally, the stain can also yellow over time as protein molecules break down.
Overly harsh cleaners
Heavy-duty cleaners like bleach are certainly effective and probably won’t damage most types of fabric when used appropriately. However, these products usually have strong odors and harsh chemicals that can irritate a baby’s sensitive respiratory tract or skin.
Types of Detergents and Stain Fighters to Use With Breast Milk
As a protein-based stain, some types of laundry products for getting rid of breast milk than others.
There are two main types of laundry detergents you can choose from. Both options are popular and widely available from many major brands, so you shouldn’t have trouble finding one you want to use at mass retailers or online.
This type of product is also known as a biological detergent. These laundry products contain enzymes that help break down the proteins causing the stain, so the soap portion of your detergent can more easily wash them away. As an additional benefit, biological detergents usually work very well in cold water.
One problem with enzyme cleaners is that they can cause skin irritation. Since baby skin tends to be more prone to irritation, some parents choose to avoid these products altogether or use them as sparingly as possible. If you want to use an enzyme cleaner, be sure to run one or two additional rinse cycles to remove as much of the product as you can.
Some natural fibers like wool or silk cannot tolerate enzyme cleaners at all since they have a protein component in their own fibers. Always check and follow your garment’s label for care instructions.
Sometimes referred to as non-biological detergents, these products are the standard baby and gentle detergents you probably use every day.
Non-biological detergents usually don’t work as well in cold water, and they work on stains in a different way than an enzyme cleaner. Due to these reasons, traditional detergents may not be as effective at removing breast milk stains as a biological one. However, they are typically far less likely to irritate delicate skin, so you may prefer to take the chance of a slight stain in favor of keeping harsh products away from your baby.
Particularly if you are dealing with a set-in stain, you’ll need some extra help to break down the protein molecules before throwing your garment in the wash.
Commercial Pre-Treating Products
Almost any product you find at the store should be effective at dissolving either fresh or set-in breast milk stains.
Always check your garment’s care label to make sure you select the right kind of product for your fabric.
Even though you will be washing the item after applying the stain fighter, you may also want to use an extra rinse cycle just to make sure you get as much of the product out as you can.
Natural Stain Removers
If you prefer to avoid commercial chemicals or you just don’t have time to run to the store, try these home remedies to help remove a stain.
Lemon juice – Instead of using bleach on your breast milk-stained whites, try taking advantage of the natural bleaching properties of lemon juice instead.
Add enough pure lemon juice to a small scoop of cream of tartar to form a paste, then apply it to the stain and gently rub it in. Let the stained item sit for about 30 minutes, then wash with your detergent of choice with the coldest water possible.
Baking soda – Create a baking soda paste by combining about 1/8 cup of water and four tablespoons of baking soda. Apply the paste to your garment, and allow it to sit for up to two hours before washing.
As the paste dries, it draws out the stain-causing substance so your detergent can wash it away.
However, baking soda may also draw out fabric dye, so if you’re treating anything other than white items, test the paste on a hidden area of the garment first to see how the fabric reacts.
Removing Fresh Breast Milk Stains
If you catch the stain while it is still damp, you shouldn’t have any long-lasting effects to worry about.
1. Rinse immediately with cold water. As mentioned previously, using only cold water can help you rinse out the protein more thoroughly by preventing the protein molecules from sticking to themselves.
You can also gently rub the affected fabric with your fingers or a soft brush. Be careful not to be too rough since wet fabric fibers can be more susceptible to stretching or distorting.
2. Let the garment soak in cold water for at least 15-20 minutes. This soak allows you to harness the anti-coagulating power of cold water for a longer time without tying up your hands.
3. Wash on your normal cycle with cold water. Use the laundry soap of your choice and run your items through as cold of a wash cycle as your detergent allows.
4. Dry in the sunshine. The sun’s rays have the ability to mildly and naturally bleach fabrics. If you’re worried about bright colors fading in the sun, turn the garment inside out.
Aside from natural bleaching, air drying will also let you avoid exposing your garment to the high temperatures that electric or gas clothes dryers generate, just in case any last remnants of breast milk protein remain even after washing.
Removing Set-In Breast Milk Stains
In the busyness of taking care of a young child, it’s highly likely that at least a couple of breast milk stains will get the chance to set in before you can deal with them. Don’t despair: You will have to take a couple of additional steps, but you should still be able to get the spot out for good.
1. Remove any flakes or clumps of dried milk. Your stain remover will have a much harder time actually penetrating the fabric fibers if it has to go through a layer of dried milk first. Gently scrape as much milk off the garment as you can, but make sure you aren’t too rough or you could stretch out the fabric.
2. Treat with the stain remover of your choice, and lightly rub or brush the product into the fabric. Whether you choose to use a commercial stain remover or a natural one, apply it to the stained area and use a soft brush, washcloth or sponge to gently rub the product into the affected area.
3. Allow the stain remover to sit. Follow the directions on commercial products. Make sure to leave the product on for at least the minimum time recommended, and try to let the product work for the maximum time recommended if possible.
If you choose to use one of the natural solutions, follow the directions listed above.
4. Machine wash using your normal cycle, your preferred detergent and the coldest water possible. Follow the detergent directions for water temperature, and check your garment’s care label for the recommended cycle.
5. Dry in the sun if possible. As previously mentioned, the sun’s rays help banish any last chances of yellowing.
How to Prevent Breast Milk Stains for the Future
In all likelihood, you can say goodbye to a properly-treated breast milk stain for good. However, removing a stain takes time and energy away from other things you would probably rather be doing, so prevention is your best bet.
Keep Soiled Items in Easy View
Especially since you have a baby to care for, forgetting about a piece of breast milk-soaked clothing is all too easy. Your first thought is probably to get yourself or your child out of your wet clothing, but throwing the dirty items right into the laundry hamper can be a surefire way to forget about them.
Try having a can’t-miss-it designated place to put your soiled clothing to give yourself the best chance of remembering to do a cold rinse as soon as your hands are free.
Use Nursing Pads
These handy little items do a great job of protecting your clothing from breast milk that accidentally leaks out.
Particularly in the early nursing days, your body is still trying to regulate your milk production, and many moms end up with an oversupply that can start to trickle out at unexpected times. Keep a ready supply of fresh pads within easy reach in your diaper bag, at your nursing station and in your purse.
Be sure to change your pads often. A saturated pad is already at full capacity and can easily allow leaks. Furthermore, trapping moisture against your skin can be uncomfortable and increase your risk for developing a painful infection called thrush.
Put a Bib on Your Baby Before Nursing
If your baby tends to pull off the breast while nursing, you probably know how much milk can escape and dribble onto your baby’s clothes in a few seconds.
Put a bib on your baby when they nurse to absorb any extra milk that doesn’t quite make it into their mouth.
Use a Burp Cloth or Small Blanket
If you don’t have a bib nearby while you’re nursing or you don’t want to unlatch your baby to put one on, just tuck a burp cloth or part of a small blanket in between your bra and baby’s cheek to catch drips.
Almost everyone has to deal with stains at one point or another, but they seem to happen especially often in homes with young children. The good news is that breast milk stains don’t have to spell the end of your favorite garments.
Particularly if you are able to rinse or treat the item right away and avoid all forms of heat, chances are great that you’ll never even be able to tell that a stain happened in the first place.
Did you have trouble with breast milk stains? What did you do to get rid of them? Share your experiences in the comments!