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Breastfeeding While You or Your Baby are Sick

Posted by Tali Weinberger, RN, BScN, CBS, OCT, BEd. on December 4th 2019

Is it safe for me to breastfeed my baby while I am sick? 

Should I breastfeed my sick infant? 

What if my baby seems too unwell to breastfeed? 

Should I ever not breastfeed?

These are the most common questions and concerns that moms are faced with, especially this time of year, as we enter the winter season.

If you or your baby are unwell – the good news is – that breastfeeding while sick can be greatly beneficial to the both of you!

Did you know that if you breastfeed, your baby is less likely to get sick in the first place? While it won’t completely stop baby from being ill, the protective properties in breast milk mean breastfed babies tend to be unwell less often, and recover at a faster rate, than formula-fed babies.

By breastfeeding, you will be lowering your baby’s risk of contracting colds and the flu, ear and respiratory tract infections, sickness and diarrhea. How you may ask? Breast milk contains antibacterial and antiviral elements that stop the spread of bacteria and viruses in the first place!

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Is it safe for me to breastfeed by baby while I am sick?

Yes. While this may be the last thing you feel like doing, it’s best to keep breastfeeding through almost any common illness. If you are faced with the common cold or flu, fever, diarrhea and vomiting, or mastitis, keep breastfeeding as normal. Many moms fear that their baby will catch the illness through their breast milk – this is a myth! In fact, this is the prime time to breast feed, as your milk will contain the antibodies needed to reduce your baby’s risk of getting the same bug.

I know, I know – this may be easier said then done. Being sick and continuing to breastfeed can be extremely tiring. Mamas: be sure to look after yourselves so that you can look after your babies. You will need to keep your fluid levels up, eat a well-balanced diet, and remember to give your body the rest it needs. Keep the snuggles with your baby going and the Netflix running for the next few days and don’t be afraid to ask for help with caring for your baby so you can focus on your recovery!

One more important note: Don’t worry about your breast milk supply – this will continue to be produced! As to avoid getting mastitis, be sure to not stop breastfeeding abruptly.

Didn’t your parents ever tell you about the importance of good hygiene? Well, now its time to put it to practice. Good hygiene will help minimize the risk of spreading the illness – especially to your other non-breastfeed children, your family, friends & hubby or your significant other. Wash your hands with soap before and after feeding your baby, preparing and eating food, using the toilet or changing nappies. Be sure to always sneeze and cough into a tissue or into the crook of your elbow, followed by washing or sanitizing your hands!

Get well soon, Mama!

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Should I breastfeed my sick infant?

Yes. Anytime that your baby is able to take anything by mouth, let it be breast milk, if you can! Breastfeeding a sick baby will not only help to comfort them but will also aid in a speedy recovery! 

Your milk provides all the antibodies specifically tailored to fight baby’s illness. It also has a constantly adjusting balance of nutrients and vitamins to help your baby get better as quickly as possible – this means fewer sick days and visits to the doctor – what’s better than that?

Did you know that the composition of your breast milk alters when your baby is sick? Say you are exposed to a bacterial or viral infection – your body will adjust itself to make antibodies to combat it; and are then transferred to your baby through your milk!

Bear in mind that you may have to alter the way you breastfeed your baby while they are unwell. For example, breastfeeding a baby that has a cold or congestion may be difficult, as they would have a hard time breathing and nursing at the same time. You may want to consider the following tips:

Cold & Congestion

  • Keep baby as upright as possible while nursing. During the night, try propping up lots of pillows and nursing/sleeping in a semi-upright position.
  • Frequently nurse. This will help to ensure that baby is getting plenty of milk, as congested babies often nurse for shorter times since it's hard to breathe and nurse at the same time.
  • Use saline drops and a rubber suction bulb to clear baby’s nose before nursing.
  • Run a vaporizer or humidifier.
  • Nurse in a steamy bathroom.

Vomiting & Diarrhea

  • Breast milk is easily digestible and is the ideal food for babies with upset tummies.
  • Frequently nurse. This can limit the volume taken in at one time and help to comfort and soothe a sick baby. If your baby is vomiting often and cannot keep the milk down for long, it would be helpful to breastfeed frequently but limit the length of each nursing session.
  • Talk with your doctor if your baby is experiencing any signs of dehydration.

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What if my baby seems too unwell to breastfeed?

Some babies may refuse to nurse when they are sick – this is normal. Just like you have a decreased appetite when you experience a sore throat, ear infection or the flu – your baby does not have the appetite or the energy to breastfeed as well.

If you are struggling to get your baby to feed, it would be a good idea to contact a healthcare professional, lactation consultant or breastfeeding specialist for advice to prevent your baby from becoming dehydrated.

Here are some tips to try if your baby is too uncomfortable to nurse:

  • Feed your baby expressed milk from a cup, dropper, spoon or syringe. These methods require the least amount of effort to drink from. Expressing when you would normally breastfeed will also ensure a steady milk supply.
  • For older babies (over six months) who are eating solids: if baby will take solids but refuse to nurse, add lots of breast milk to the solids.
  • Always seek medical advice quickly, if you continue to have any concerns about your baby’s health or milk intake. 
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Should I ever not breastfeed?

Some situations exist where it’s safest to temporarily stop breastfeeding and pump & dump your milk to keep up your supply until the time is right. These instances include if you are undergoing radiotherapy or chemotherapy for cancer, have herpes lesions on your breast or infections like tuberculosis, measles or septicaemia that could easily be transmitted to your baby through your milk. Seek the advice from a medical expert for more information regarding this matter.

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