Genetic breastfeeding problems

If nobody in my family could breastfeed, can I?

It is uncommon for a genetic problem to interfere with breastfeeding. Such conditions include: cystic fibrosis, hypohidrotic ectodermal dysplasia, and abnormalities in zinc and iodine handling and prolactin receptors.

A) How a mother's genetics may affect her ability to breastfeed

Some mothers worry that if their own mother did not have enough milk, they will experience the same problem. If you are healthy and do not have any of the risk factors of a low milk supply, you will most likely be able to breastfeed.

Genes control our bodies and direct milk production (Geddes 2017; Twigger 2015). However, there is very little research on how the mother’s genetic makeup affects the quality and quantity of breast milk.

Only a few genetic conditions have been shown to affect milk production and quality.

B) Genetic conditions that may affect breastfeeding

The following conditions may affect breastfeeding. 

1) Cystic fibrosis

People with cystic fibrosis (CF) can struggle to take in enough nutrients and need monitoring. Mothers with CF produce normal breast milk, but it may have decreased amounts of nutrients if they become ill (Shiffman et al. 1989). Their baby's growth should be monitored.

The type of fats can change when mothers have CF (Hamosh and Bitman 1992).

2) Hypohidrotic ectodermal dysplasia

Hypohidrotic ectodermal dysplasia is due to a genetic mutation that affects the development of the teeth, hair, nails, parts of the eye and ear, sweat glands, and breast, which is a modified sweat gland. It can result in the following:

  • Breasts of very different sizes
  • A breast that is missing
  • Flat nipples
  • More than one nipple on a side
  • Missing Montgomery glands

Mothers with this condition may experience difficulty latching their baby and have a low milk supply (Wahlbuhl-Becker 2017).

3) Other genetic conditions that can affect breastfeeding

Other conditions include: 

  • How zinc is handled by the breast
  • How iodine is handled by the breast
  • Abnormal genes for prolactin production or receptors

References

Geddes DT, Twigger A, Savigni DK, et al. Milk cell gene expression of mothers with low breast milk production. FASEB 2017:31(1)

Hamosh M, Bitman J. Human milk in disease: lipid composition. Lipids. 1992 Nov;27(11):848-57 
 
Shiffman ML, Seale TW, Flux M, et al. Breast-milk composition in women with cystic fibrosis: report of two cases and a review of the literature. Am J Clin Nutr. 1989 Apr;49(4):612-7 

Twigger AJ, Hepworth AR, Lai CT, et al. Gene expression in breastmilk cells is associated with maternal and infant characteristics. Sci Rep. 2015 Aug 10;5:12933

Wahlbuhl-Becker M, Faschingbauer F, Beckmann MW, et al. Hypohidrotic Ectodermal Dysplasia: Breastfeeding Complications Due to Impaired Breast Development. Geburtshilfe Frauenheilkd. 2017 Apr;77(4):377-382