Castor oil? That’s a product I haven’t heard much about in a long time. When I think of castor oil, I think of old timey movies, where a child is made to swallow a spoonful of a dark and mysterious liquid for reasons only known to the mother.
But is it safe for pregnant and/or nursing mothers?
Let’s check it out.
What exactly IS castor oil?
Castor oil is a very useful vegetable oil made from the seeds of a plant called Ricinus communis. The oil is generally clear or pale yellow. The oil is often used in the manufacture of soaps, lubricants, paints, dyes, inks, plastics, biodiesel and perfumes, among other products. Ricinus communis is also used as animal feed and for ornamentation.
Funny enough, Ricinus communis seeds (also known as “castor beans”) contain a poisonous substance called Ricin. It is for this reason that castor beans are very toxic. Consumption of just one castor bean could kill a child. (Castor beans should never be planted where children play).
While many people know of castor oil, most don’t realize that Ricin is produced from the same seeds. If you didn’t know, Ricin is fairly well known as a very toxic chemical warfare agent. A few grains of purified ricin powder can kill an adult human. During World War I and World War II, the United States researched Ricin for its military potential as a biological weapon (coating bullets with the substance, for example). In recent years, politicians have received mail or packages containing Ricin powder or brushed with Ricin oil. Assassins have used Ricin to kill political dissidents. There is some concern that Ricin could be used to commit a massive act of terrorism through Ricin-contamination of a city water source.
Castor oil is extracted from the castor beans. When made for commercial sale, it might be made by mechanical processing, solvent extraction, or by a combination of pressing and extraction. The oil is then refined to make sure all toxins are removed. Some folks like to make castor oil at home, by boiling the seeds to remove the toxin. (The poison is water soluble). Touching the plant with your bare skin can make you sick, so we can’t recommend that you do anything with the castor bean plant while pregnant or nursing.
Can you utilize commercially manufactured castor oil while pregnant or breastfeeding?
For hundreds of years, castor oil has been used as a laxative. In fact, the United States Food and Drug Administration has gone as far as categorizing castor oil as safe and effective for use as a laxative. So effective is castor oil at moving around the contents of your insides, that it has been used as a punishment for children and political dissidents. (In Europe large public doses of the oil were used as torture. Nothing like pooping your pants uncontrollably in public to shame you into compliance). If you were given enough of the substance (even without the toxic Ricin), you could due from the diarrhea.
However, castor oil is not recommended during pregnancy, unless the baby is ready to be delivered. While I don’t have any personal experience using the oil in the deliveries of my own children, castor oil has been used historically to induce labor or dilate the cervix more quickly during labor. This is why consumption of castor oil to treat constipation is not recommended during pregnancy unless the baby is full term, as the oil can cause contractions.
There have been no scientifically valid clinical trials about the use of castor oil in breastfeeding. Theoretically, from what we’ve seen from anecdotal evidence, in small amounts the oil shouldn’t hurt you or your baby physically. The Ricin in the castor bean is removed completely in commercially produced castor oil. If there is anything harmful in the castor oil, everyone consuming the oil would get sick, not just breastfed infants. Since Ricin is such a toxic substance, the product can’t possible be sold with even trace amounts of Ricin in it.
However, there are still good reasons to avoid the oil while breastfeeding. Some studies do suggest that consumption of the oil actually reduces the amount of milk produced by the breastfeeding mother.
Further, in rural India, infants are dosed with castor oil within the first few days of life to help the infant expel meconium. Unfortunately, these infants tend to suffer from diarrhea, malnutrition, aspiration pneumonia, and other dangerous conditions as a result.
Some people believe that an application of the oil to the skin of the breasts helps with milk production. There isn’t much evidence to really support this use.
In general, your infant shouldn’t consume castor oil. If you apply castor oil to your body, we can’t recommend that you apply it anywhere or in such an amount that your baby consumes any of it. If you decide to consume castor oil, make sure that the product is a reputable one.
Finally, we cannot recommend that you consume or utilize homemade castor oil while breastfeeding. In fact, because of the risk, it is pretty hard for us to give you the go-ahead to use homemade castor oil at all, on any level, at any time. In some cases, when you make something at home, the worst that could happen is that the product doesn’t turn out quite right, doesn’t look perfect, or doesn’t taste good. Failing to remove the Ricin toxin completely from homemade castor oil could mean severe sickness or death.
Summary: Is it safe?
To sum, it is probably safe to use castor oil while breastfeeding. But like many foods, drugs, and other substances, it is probably better to just steer clear of it until you are done breastfeeding. Your baby probably won’t die of Ricin poisoning, but there isn’t a lot of research out there about castor oil and nursing. If you want to know more about using castor oil, we recommend that you talk to your OB or pediatrician.
At this point, we don’t know what we don’t know.
What are your thoughts on castor oil and breastfeeding?
Check out another recent article from Mom Advice Line: Will Breastfeeding Stop My Period?
Emily Anderson is a mother of three children, ages 8, 6, and 3. Located in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, Emily is a full-time mom and part-time blogger, jumping in front of the screen when the kids are occupied. She can be reached through the Contact Us page.