tattoo process
Health Concerns

Can You Get a Tattoo While Breastfeeding?

In Australia, a Federal Circuit Court Judge passed an injunction that legally banned a mother from breastfeeding her 11-month baby because she had 2 tattoos placed while breastfeeding. The mother tested negative for HIV/AIDS in the bloodstream, but the judge stated the mother had put her baby at risk of getting blood-borne diseases.

In his decision, the judge referred to guidelines set by the Australian Breastfeeding Association. Those guidelines do caution against blood-borne infections caused by multiple-use pigments, and the possibility of HIV/AIDS transmission through contaminated needles. Regardless, it drew much comment and protest. This begs the question: medically speaking, can you get a tattoo while breastfeeding?

What Are the Medical Risks of Getting a Tattoo While Breastfeeding?

What are the medical risks of getting a tattoo in general? Let us take a look at some of these, and understand the hype on the issue. Later on, we will focus on the central question of this article: can you get a tattoo while breastfeeding?

First, tattoos are often permanent pigments inserted below several layers of skin in patterns. To ensure permanency, the ink is placed deep enough that it leaks into the bloodstream (there is actually some bleeding while the tattoo is placed). This automatically makes it a health risk for blood-borne diseases. What are the most general risks of getting a tattoo?

Skin Infections

Depending on the cleanliness and sterilization of the clinic, the equipment, and the pigments, a tattooed person is at risk of skin infections. The most dangerous tattoo-induced skin infections are leprosy, tetanus, HIV, and hepatitis B and C. All of these are blood-borne and can be transmitted in unclean environments.

Skin Allergies

Unfortunately, most people getting tattoos will not know which pigments they are allergic to until they actually get the tattoo. Green, red, and yellow dyes often cause skin allergies. Those getting the tattoo can get itchy rashes on the site where ink was inserted. Sometimes, the rash stays for months or longer. Other times, years later, the chemical breakdown causes the rash.

Which Kinds Count in Breastfeeding?

Unless the allergic reaction is so violent as to cause fever and sickness, a mother’s skin allergy should not find its way to the baby through breastmilk. What is most dangerous for the baby is the possibility of contracting a blood-borne disease. While babies cannot contract the cold or flu from their mothers, they can contract a bacterial infection from the breast milk.

The Scientific Debate: Can You Get a Tattoo While Breastfeeding?

An article by Robyn Roche-Paul and Karen Spicer–both IBCLCs–in LEAVEN in 2005 looks at various studies on the compatibility of tattoos and breastfeeding. First, they state that tattoos that exist before the woman starts breastfeeding have no discernible effect on breast milk whatsoever.

As long as they are not too recent, it is unlikely any tattoo-induced infection would remain in the bloodstream. However, if a mother does choose to get a tattoo while breastfeeding, she would be exposed to the normal dangers of the tattoo process.

There is an increased risk of infection, in a sense, because it is also up to the mother to maintain the tattooed area so that infection does not set in. This may be grounds for protest: that the mother got a tattoo despite the increased risk of infection automatically run.

An article by Roy Benaroch, MD in 2013 agrees with the earlier conclusion. As long as the mother is aware of the sterilization and cleanliness procedures that a tattoo artist should follow, the danger of blood-borne infections is nil (besides the mother’s responsibility afterwards). Also, so far, no studies have shown that tattoo ink is bad for the baby.

On the other hand, an article by Brett Israel in Environmental Health News cautions against the presence of heavy metals in tattoo ink. Ink often contains cadmium, chromium, lead, nickel, titanium, and others. They make it into the bloodstream during the tattoo process.

While an IBCLC has said tattoos while breastfeeding are not harmful, she also cautions against the heavy metals in tattoo ink. There have been no studies yet that prove whether or not they make it into breast milk, but they definitely enter the mother’s bloodstream.

Supporting that side of the debate is an article by Friends of the Earth Australia. They point out that 60% of tattoo inks tested in Europe were pulled from the market, and that a 3-by-5 inch tattoo can hold up to 1.23 micrograms of lead in the ink. They also point out that black ink is a health risk for spreading carcinogens into the skin.  

The Debate Conclusion

In truth, many professional tattoo artists will even refuse to tattoo mothers who are pregnant or breastfeeding. While adverse effects of tattoos on breastfeeding mothers are not yet proved, the already existing risks are as good a reason as any to wait before getting a tattoo.

Mothers should not only take into account the infection risks, but also the risks of heavy metals finding their ways into the bloodstream and therefore into breast milk. In short, it depends on the informed consent of the mother.

Why Ask a Lactation Consultant for Help on Getting Tattoos While Breastfeeding?

An IBCLC (International Board Certified Lactation Consultant) is, according to the International Lactation Consultant Association, not just an advocate and facilitator of breastfeeding mothers. An IBCLC is also a clinical expert and an educator. They are trained to give counsel on a mother’s medical health, and discuss issues related to breastfeeding.

IBCLCs are the perfect people to consult because their specialty is breastfeeding. They are completely focused on a mother’s concerns related to breastfeeding. Unlike OB/GYNs and Pediatricians, they can give more detailed and knowledgeable information on the subject because it is the sole focus of their work.

Can You Get a Tattoo While Breastfeeding?

So, to summarize: Can you get a tattoo while breastfeeding? Yes and no. No one knows just how much the tattoo ink composition could harm a breastfeeding mother and her baby. However, given the circumstantial evidence on the topic, it seems that it would be better for mothers to wait until their babies are weaned before getting a tattoo. In all cases, when in doubt, you should get an informed opinion from a doctor, health professional, or IBCLC.