“Did the dog pee on the laundry?!” I nearly shrieked, rifling through the pile of clothing that I had just washed. She must have; why else would there be yellow stains on my baby’s bibs, onesies, and…everything else? I knew I shouldn’t have left the clothes sitting on the couch…
Well, as it were, the dog was innocent. The cause of the stains? Me, myself, and baby; it turns out that breast milk can turn any fabric a “lovely” shade of yellow, even after it’s been put through the wash.
So, does this mean that all babies destined to wear splotchy, stained clothing for their entire nursing life? Not at all. With the proper method, you can get those stains out of fabric, and keep them out.
Let’s talk about breast milk stains.
Why Does Breast Milk Stain
You would be hardpressed to find a mother who doesn’t know that breastfeeding is healthy, but do you know exactly why?
Nature has made our bodies capable of producing breast milk that is not only rich in vitamins, but that also contains the much-needed fat and protein your baby needs. It’s the ideal concoction for your child’s early meals, and you don’t even have to wait in a checkout line to buy it.
Funny story, though; those proteins are responsible for the icky yellow tint that a breast milk stain can leave behind. And how about the (not-so) occasional ‘greasy’ stain? Yeah, that comes from the fatty part of your breast milk. It turns out good nutrition can be messy. (source)
What About Colostrum
Your body’s natural amuse bouche, colostrum, is produced during your pregnancy and for 2 to 5 days after you have given birth. It will then blend with breast milk for about 10 to 14 days before the complete transition to breast milk takes place, at which point colostrum disappears off the menu altogether.
One of the primary benefits of colostrum is that its jammed pack full of protein. Great for your baby, not so great for that snow white onesie because, as we discussed above, protein is quick to leave some unsightly stains on fabric. (source)
Getting Rid of Stains
The methodology behind removing stains is actually pretty straightforward, and something we will get into shortly. Before we get to the fun stuff, however, let’s brush up on some baby laundry tips.
Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of detergents from which you can choose.
- Biological Detergents: These products contain enzymes, and enzymes are troopers when it comes to breaking down a protein stain. They can also deliver a perfectly good clean in cooler water temperatures. However, these enzymes may also be a skin irritant, so some parents decide to bypass this type of product.
- Non-Biological Detergents: Perfectly capable of taking on tough stains, these detergents do not contain protein-attacking enzymes. You will tend to need to use higher water temperatures for a thorough clean, but some believe these products are easier on the skin.
Many popular brands make both biological and non-biological versions of their laundry detergents.
Odds are, you are going to encounter a stain that is stubborn enough to require soaking in something stronger than cold water. In cases like these, you may be wondering what, exactly, is safe enough for your baby. Many parents have experienced exceptional results from using:
OxiClean Baby Stain Remover: free of dyes and chlorine, this oxygen-based cleaner has earned a favorable reputation.
Dawn Ultra Dishwashing Liquid Dish Soap: an oldie but a goodie, this is a classic cleaner for those greasy stains.
Dreft Laundry Stain Remover: another industry standard among parenting circles, this stain remover can do its work in virtually any water temperature.
If synthetic cleaners aren’t really your thing, no worries. There are plenty of natural products that fight stains. A few that have been shown to help with breast milk blemishes are:
- Lemon or Lime Juice: acts as a natural bleach with none of the chemical fallout; just be sure to make sure it’s 100% juice and only use it on your whites. (source)
- White Vinegar: add about 1/4 cup to your normal wash cycle for a bit of extra cleaning and brightening power. (source)
- Hydrogen Peroxide: although eco-friendly and capable of cutting through stains, you might find it doesn’t get through greasy spots as well as some of its product-peers. (source)
- Baking Soda: add four tablespoons of baking soda to 1/4 cup of water, and voila, you have an all-purpose stain remover. (source)
What About Bleach?
It can be tempting to just toss everything in the washer, along with a healthy dose of bleach, and call it a day. But, as frustrating as breast milk stains can be, we advise you put the bleach down and step away from the washer.
Bleach is harsh. Fun fact: it can actually break down polymers that give certain outfits, including some baby clothes, their fire retardant properties. (source)
Moreover, bleach can irritate the delicate skin of our babies. If you do resort to using bleach, be sure to run the laundry load through an extra rinse cycle or two.
Removing Fresh Breast Milk Stains
If you can immediately address a milk spill, it will, of course, be much easier to remove. So, if the planets align and you can act quickly:
- Rinse off the breast milk with cold water.
- Soak the garment for at least 15 minutes in cold water. This will help break down the stain and prevent it from setting into the fabric.
- Work the stain with your fingers or a soft-bristled brush (like a toothbrush), taking care, not to overstretch or otherwise damage the fabric.
- Wash as the garment as per the label instructions.
- Dry in the sun to harness Mother Nature’s natural bleaching powers.
Removing Set-In Breast Milk Stains
Let’s assume that, because you’re pretty busy raising a member of the next generation, you usually are not able to drop everything to soak a fresh colostrum stain in cold water. In such a case:
- Rinse off the area as best you can. If there is any crusty residue left, gently scrape it away.
- Pretreat the fabric by spraying your product of choice on the stain.
- Use a soft-bristled brush (such as a toothbrush), gently working the pretreatment into the stain.
- Allow the pretreatment to sit on the fabric for at least fifteen minutes, but feel free to wait a whole 24 hours or more if your pretreatment allows for it.
- Wash per the garment label’s instructions.
- Dry in the sun. Remember-it’s the most natural bleach in the world.
Be prepared to wash, rinse, and repeat as needed. Stains are stubborn little beasts, but with some elbow grease, you can get those fabrics looks bright and clean.
What About Mom’s Clothes?
It’s not just the baby’s clothes that are going to take a breast milk beating from time to time. Odds are, you have stained shirts, sheets, and bras just begging to step through that washer door.
The good news is, all of the above will work for your clothes as well. So simply:
- Rinse off the breast milk.
- Pretreat your fabric.
- Gently rub with a soft-bristled brush.
- Allow the pretreatment to soak in.
- Wash per the garment label’s instructions;
- Dry in the sun; your clothes can reap the benefits of a natural bleach, too.
While it might be tempting to use detergents that are a little more built for strain fighting business, remember that your baby’s bare skin will continuously be in contact with your body and clothing. In the interest of not accidentally passing along something that might be irritating to young skin, we advise parents to stick with milder products whenever possible.
Remember: improperly treated milk stains can reappear on clothing even after it has been put through a normal wash cycle. To avoid this, be sure to master your rinse, pretreat, and scrubbing skills; you don’t want those stains surprising you when you’re putting away clean laundry.
Seriously, that dog looked side-eyed at me for months.