Body Modifications are a group of practices that include branding, scarification, tattooing, piercing, and other body art.  Body modifications have been around nearly as long as breastfeeding. Archaeologists, historians and body art practitioners note that tattooing and body piercing have been performed, in one form or another, worldwide for over 5000 years. However, within the last 20-30 years body modifications have experienced an explosion in popularity, with people both young and old getting body mods of various types.  More than 20 million Americans, half of whom are women, have one or more tattoos and up to 30% have piercings, and many have both (DeBoer, Seaver, Angel, & Armstrong, 2008).  This surge in body modifications shows no signs of slowing down in the near future.

Many women today get tattoos and piercings as a form of self-expression or to commemorate a special occasion or life event (Caliendo, Armstrong, & Roberts, 2005).  For whatever reason, women today have or are getting body modifications in greater numbers at the same time that many are also becoming mothers.  Along with the rise in body modifications, breastfeeding has seen resurgence in popularity as well.  With breastfeeding rates climbing worldwide it is not surprising that many new mothers, who either have body modifications or who may be contemplating them in the future, might have questions as to the safety of breastfeeding. So what’s a hip, tattooed or pierced and breastfeeding (or soon-to-be) mom to do then?  Is there breastfeeding during or after tattooing and nipple piercings?

Nipple piercings, while a favorite among body mod fans, require patience and are not without risk.  Nipple piercings can take up to a full year to heal completely, with infections and rejections the most common problems. If you are contemplating getting your nipples pierced and also want to have a baby, it is best if you plan the piercing at least 12-18 months before you plan to get pregnant. This allows the piercing time to heal and create a fistula, or channel, before the bodily and hormonal changes that accompany pregnancy occur.  It also will allow for removal of the jewelry during breastfeeding without the worry of the channel closing up. The nipple(s) must have time to heal and cannot have any saliva enter the open wound and the jewelry must stay in place during the healing period, something that is next to impossible to achieve with a young baby to feed frequently.

Many women who already have nipple piercings are concerned about their ability to breastfeed in the future. Breastfeeding is not generally affected by established nipple piercings.  Human nipples have between 8-12 nipple pores therefore it is unlikely that a well-healed piercing will block all of the pores.  However, there has been some recent research pointing to a few reported cases of abnormal milk production in women with nipple piercings due to possible duct obstruction (Garbin, Deacon, Rowan, Hartmann, & Geddes, 2009).  Often women find that when they do remove their jewelry for a feeding that milk leaks out the piercing, this can be problematic if the flow is too fast for your infant.  Be proactive about preventing or reducing any engorgement and be on the lookout for blocked ducts or mastitis, all of which may be exacerbated by nipple piercings (Armstrong, Caliendo, & Roberts, 2006).  It is best to remove your jewelry for each feeding, to reduce the risk of your baby aspirating or choking, although some women do nurse with flexible PTFE barbells in place (Angel, 2009).  Removing your jewelry also reduces the risk of latching-on problems, damage to the inside of your baby’s mouth or the passing of bacteria from the jewelry to your baby.  If you chose to keep your jewelry out permanently until your baby is weaned, be aware that even a fully healed piercing may close and some women have noticed nipple pain in a previously pierced nipple while nursing (Wilson-Clay & Hoover, 2005).  You can keep the piercing open by inserting an insertion taper on a regular basis.  If the channel closes completely wait at least three months post-weaning before re-piercing  (Armstrong, Caliendo, & Roberts, 2006).  If you face any problems with breastfeeding be sure to contact your local LLL Leader or an IBCLC for help.  For problems with your piercing you should be seen by a qualified piercer.

Tattoos are a permanent form of artwork etched into the flesh and are not without risk as well.  As with piercings, local and systemic infections are the most prevalent risks of tattooing. Already present tattoos, on the breast or elsewhere, do not impact breastfeeding. The possibility of the ink migrating into the mother’s blood plasma and then into the milk-making cells of the breast, is next to impossible. It is however, possible to have allergic reactions to the tattoo inks, which are not regulated by the FDA (FDA, 2008).  Many, if not most, professional tattoo artists will not knowingly tattoo a woman who is currently breastfeeding or will actively discourage a new mother from doing so. It is felt that the body needs time to heal the tattoo and that is harder to do so when the body is producing milk, it also lessens the possibility of any infections from being passed on to the baby (Hudson, 2009).  A newborn baby is far more vulnerable to any possible changes in breastmilk than a nursing toddler.  Going to a professional tattoo shop following Universal Precautions also lessens the risk of any infection that might be acquired.

Tattoo Removal It is estimated that 20% of those who get tattoos later regret the decision and wish to have them removed (Armstrong, et al., 2008). Tattoo removal is now accomplished with the use of Q-switched lasers. The laser works by producing short pulses of intense light that passes through the skin to be absorbed by the tattoo pigment. The laser energy causes the tattoo pigment to fragment into smaller particles, which are picked up by the body’s immune system and filtered out. The particles are considered to big to pass into breastmilk.

Whether you are contemplating a tattoo or getting your nipples pierced it is very important that your tattoo artist or piercer follow Universal Precautions. Professional tattooists and piercers will follow all universal precautions such as sterilization of the tattoo machine and piercing implements using an autoclave, single-use inks, ink cups, gloves and needles, bagging of equipment to avoid cross contamination, thorough hand washing with disinfectant soap and the wearing of gloves when performing the tattoo or piercing (Armstrong, et al., 2006).  Any jewelry that is to be inserted should be kept sterile before insertions as well.  It is important to screen the tattooist and the shop carefully, checking with the local health department for local laws and regulations. Reputable body artists support regulations and legislation to keep their customers safe and to legitimize the profession.  The Association of Professional Piercers and the Association of Professional Tattooists both have a wealth of information on safe body modifications and what to look for in a practitioner.

So go ahead and make a statement with your piercings and tattoos, just follow the rules and make sure your piercer or tattoo artist does too.  Body art and breastfeeding are not mutually exclusive, and both are beautiful.


Article courtesy
Written by: Robyn Roche-Paull, BS, IBCLC, LLLL


Young Parent Outreach is a dynamic resource program providing services and support to young pregnant women, young moms and dads, and their children in the Greater Victoria area.

These services – provided by The Cridge Centre for the Family – are designed to give young pregnant women and young moms and dads the help and support network they need to have healthy babies and to be effective, successful parents. Whether it’s housing, income assistance, food back or dealing with child custody or substance abuse, The Cridge Young Parent Outreach program can help.