Breastmilk is often recommended by pediatricians as a treatment for babies with blocked tear ducts. A blocked tear duct occurs most often when the duct where lubricating tears drain from the eyes is not fully developed at birth, or when a membrane between the inner corner of the eye and the nasal sinus does not dissolve or break after birth. In the case of a blocked tear duct, the normal lubricating tears (as opposed to more excessive tears from crying) not only drain from the eye onto the face, but a small contained infection can form in the inner corner of the eye from tear buildup between the corner of the eye and the duct or inner membrane.
In general, a blocked tear duct is little more than a nuisance. My second daughter had one in one eye from birth until nearly 11 months of age. According to our pediatrician, the infection associated with a blocked tear duct is unlike infections that occur in other parts of the body – it will not generally, if left untreated, spread to other, more serious parts of the body (if there is redness, or pain, or the infection is unusually awful, definitely have this checked out ASAP though). However, seeing your beautiful baby's eye constantly filled with icky green stuff, and tearing down her face can be disappointing and troubling. I can't count the number of times people asked me, "What's wrong with her eye?" or "Does she have pink eye?" And numerous otherwise adorable photos display both the goop and the tears. More troublesome, for a period, the baby would sometimes wake with her eyelashes glued together from the discharge.
Our pediatrician explained that most often these things clear on their own as the baby grows. She advised that dropping or squirting breastmilk in the eye is a way to help keep the green infection part of it under better control, but that it wouldn't clear the obstruction causing the blocked tears (the doctor can also prescribe antibiotic drops for this purpose for those who are not breastfeeding or do not want to use breastmilk). Sure enough, when I would be diligent about remembering to squirt some milk in there before or after a feeding, the infection would become less apparent (although the tearing continued). When I forgot, it would grow and become more visible. She also said that we could lightly massage below the corner of the eye, and that massage tears into the duct, or break the membrane, but the baby hated it and it never did seem to help. It may have pushed some of the infection out of the pocket and into the eye where we could wipe it away.
As she approached a year, my anxiety grew, as this is the point where many pediatricians want to do an outpatient surgery, which involves general anesthesia in order to manually unblock the obstruction – a little overwhelming for an infant and their family! But as in 90% or so of these cases, our daughter did finally outgrow the blockage – either the nasal passage grew along with her, or the membrane finally cleared. One day, she had a surprisingly large (and disgusting!) volume of yellow-green drainage from her nose – we thought she might have an odd and otherwise asymptomatic cold. But after a half a day or so, it cleared, and we realized that the tearing and eye infection were gone, never to return. We did put breastmilk in the eye for several days to help flush out any remnant infection in the eye or along the drainage route, but no one told us to do that…it just seemed like a good idea!
So, if your baby has a blocked tear duct, try not to stress. Most likely it will clear up on its own. Discuss and track it with your health care provider, and certainly breastmilk can help to ensure that the infection stays under control, and unpleasant side effects like crusty, stuck together eyelids are reduced.
For further detail, here's a very good article on Blocked Tear Ducts and Obstruction Removal Surgery, although disappointingly, it does not mention breastmilk as an alternative to antibiotic drops -- http://kidshealth.org/parent/general/eyes/tear_duct_obstruct_surgery.html
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