Getting sick is the last thing any mom needs. If you are a breastfeeding mom feeling down and out with a virus or other illness, you may wonder: can I still breastfeed? Read on to learn why breastfeeding when a mom is sick is both safe and recommended.
Breast milk contains antibodies, healthy bacteria, and other factors necessary for a healthy immune system.
Breast milk from a mother exposed to a virus can provide passive immunity against that virus to her baby.
Mothers should avoid a sudden halt to breastfeeding as it can cause breast engorgement or mastitis.
Excellent hand hygiene is a must for anyone sick and caring for an infant.
Most common medications are safe for breastfeeding, but it is best to double-check before taking any medication while breastfeeding.
Reasons to keep breastfeeding when sick
It may be the last thing you feel like doing, but keep breastfeeding if you are sick with a viral illness. An abrupt stop to breastfeeding could have painful consequences for you and result in a missed immune-boosting opportunity for your baby.
Breast milk can protect babies from illness
Research tells us that breast milk has many benefits for babies, including a boost in immunity. Breast milk gives babies antibodies, healthy bacteria, and other factors our bodies need for a healthy immune system.
Our immune system custom-designs and produces antibodies targeted to eliminate anything that should not be in our body (such as illness-causing viruses or bacteria). Those antibodies pass into your breast milk, giving your baby passive immunity. By getting your breast milk, your baby's immune system will be armed and ready against a virus already in your house.
Not breastfeeding can make things worse for mom
If you are feeling sick, it may be tempting to skip breastfeeding altogether. But a sudden decrease or cessation of breastfeeding can make you feel worse. Your body will continue to produce milk even when sick. If that milk has nowhere to go, that can lead to engorgement or mastitis (a painful inflammation of breast tissue that sometimes leads to infection).
If you are too exhausted to even think about breastfeeding, you may need to relieve the pressure in your breasts manually or with a breast pump. If possible, have a support person bring your baby to you so you can breastfeed. Ensure you get plenty of fluids and as much rest as you can.
How to breastfeed safely when sick
When you are sick, it is vital to take extra care to avoid transmitting germs to your baby. Follow these precautions:
- Wash your hands. Hands are a common source of germ transmission. Wash your hands often and always wash your hands before touching your baby. Use soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% isopropyl alcohol.
- Cough or sneeze into your sleeve. Viruses that travel in droplets can be spread with coughing or sneezing.
- Consider wearing a well-fitting mask. A well-fitting will prevent droplets from reaching your baby when breastfeeding, especially if you have a cough that is difficult to control.
Are there any times I shouldn’t breastfeed?
There are very few illnesses that may mean you should not breastfeed.
According to the CDC, do not breastfeed if you:
- Have been infected with HIV (recommendations may differ by country);
- Have T-cell lymphotropic virus (type I or II);
- Have Ebola virus.
Pause breastfeeding and talk to your healthcare provider if:
- You have active herpes simplex virus with a lesion on your breast (however, you can breastfeed from the unaffected side, but ensure the lesions on the other breast are completely covered);
- You have active varicella (chicken pox);
- You have untreated brucellosis (a bacterial infection).
Is medicine safe when breastfeeding?
Yes, most medications used to manage symptoms of a viral illness are safe for breastfeeding.
Acetaminophen and ibuprofen are good choices if you need relief from fever, aches, and pains. Some cold and flu medications can be associated with a reduced milk supply.
Make sure anyone prescribing you medication knows you are breastfeeding. Consider consulting your local pharmacist when choosing over-the-counter medications.
Being sick is tough and extra-exhausting if you are a breastfeeding mom. If you feel too sick and tried to breastfeed, take a break when necessary. Be sure to express some milk to keep your breasts comfortable. If you're up for it, rest assured that breastfeeding is safe for your baby. It gives them the gift of antibodies and may help them get through cold and flu season without so much as a sniffle.
Can I breastfeed if I have COVID-19?
Yes. If exposed to the novel coronavirus, you will pass on protective antibodies to your baby through your breast milk. The CDC recommends wearing a well-fitted mask when breastfeeding until at least five days after symptoms start, being fever-free for at least 24 hours, and until symptoms start to improve.
Can I breastfeed if I have a stomach bug?
Yes. Germs that cause food-borne illness (food poisoning) or other forms of vomiting and diarrhea do not pass into breast milk. Research even tells us that breastfed babies have a lower risk of gastrointestinal illnesses. Be sure to practice excellent handwashing if you continue breastfeeding when you have a stomach bug.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Breastfeeding and special circumstances: maternal or infant illnesses or conditions.
- American Academy of Pediatrics. Breastfeeding overview.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Breastfeeding and caring for newborns if you have COVID-19.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Contraindications to breastfeeding or feeding expressed breast milk to infants.
- National Library of Medicine. Drugs and lactation database (LactMed®).