Should You Nurse Your Baby When You’re Sick?

By Jessica Martin-Weber

 

This post is made possible by the generous contribution of Naturepedic.

Naturepedic

 

Please note, this is not intended to be health care advice or to replace or be a substitute for being seen by a qualified healthcare provider. 

 

Is it ok to nurse when you’re sick? Could baby get sick from your milk? From being so close to you if you’re contagious? Should you quarantine from your baby?

We often hear how great human milk is for our babies’ immune systems. There’s plenty of evidence that shows this to be true and even though it’s no guarantee that our babies will never be sick (lowering risk is not eliminating risk), it can certainly be a motivating factor to breastfeed. In fact, we know that in infants, breastfeeding significantly reduces respiratory infections, gastrointestinal infections, SIDS and infant mortality, allergic disease (asthma, atopic dermatitis, and eczema), celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, and childhood leukemia and lymphoma. (For more, see here and here.) There’s no doubt that nursing can help reduce how often a baby is sick, the severity of their illness, and the duration of their illness. (More on that here.) Most of the time, breastfeeding is exactly what your baby needs when they are sick.

 

Have a sick little one?

This pediatrician explains when to call your child’s healthcare provider.

 

But what about when the breastfeeding parent is the one sick? Particularly with an infectious disease that baby could easily get being in close proximity to the one sick? Is breastmilk so magical that it can protect our babies even then?

Not exactly but, well… kind of.

“…the immunologic components found in breast milk appear increasingly likely to play a specific immunologic role in the protection of the nursing infant.” (Mucosal immunity: the immunology of breast milk)

 

 

While it is possible your infant nursling could catch a sickness from you even with breastfeeding and since reduced risk doesn’t mean no risk, it certainly does happen, breastfeeding can reduce the duration of infectious disease in the breastfed infant and even beyond the first year of life.

The American Acadamy of Pediatrics recommendation on breastfeeding while sick:

“If a mother has a cold or the flu, it is not necessary to discontinue or interrupt breastfeeding. Through breastfeeding, the infant will receive the antibodies that the mother is producing to fight the illness. Most infectious diseases are also not a cause for weaning or interruption. Generally, by the time a disease has been diagnosed, the infant has been exposed and will probably benefit more from the protection he gets from his mother’s breast milk than from weaning. However, each case must be evaluated individually.”

 

Nursing when you’re sick? Try the side-lying position or the laid-back feeding position to feed while you rest.

 

There are times when it would be dangerous to breastfeed during an illness such as when the treatment for the illness carries a higher risk to the baby in the mother’s milk than not breastfeeding would. While this is rarely the case for infectious diseases, it is possible. It is important to speak with your healthcare provider and disclose that you are breastfeeding when considering treatment options. As not all healthcare providers are fully informed on human lactation, you may find the following resource helpful in determining treatment options that are safe for breastfeeding and to check a medication’s potential impact on breastmilk supply:

  • Infant Risk the leading research for medication safety during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

 

Have specific concerns about COVID-19 and nursing your baby? See more here and here.

 

Sometimes, illness can have an impact on breastfeeding. Some changes to breastfeeding that can happen during an illness of the breastfeeding parent:

  • Low milk supply
  • Milk color changes
  • Increased feedings
  • Decreased feedings
  • Sensitivity
  • Fussy baby at breast
  • Sore nipples

Decreased feeding or pumping, fever, and dehydration can lead to a lower supply of milk. Severe dehydration (such as can happen with gastrointestinal illness) can cause a sudden and drastic drop whereas a slow decrease in milk volume is more typical of illnesses such as the flu. Low supply as a result of dehydration will typically come back quickly with hydration, electrolytes, and rest. Low supply as a result of not fully emptying breasts due to fatigue and other symptoms will take time to rebuild. Low supply as a result of medication side effects usually will begin to recover when the medication is stopped and frequent emptying of the breast increases.

Recovering Milk Supply Following Illness
If you experience low supply as a result of illness, the best way to increase your supply to meet your baby’s needs is simply to let them breastfeed as often as they are interested in doing so. Complete and frequent draining of the breasts will signal the body to produce more milk. Keeping your baby close and doing skin-to-skin will also help encourage milk production. For lactating parents who pump, adding a 10-20 minute pumping session after several feedings or in between feedings can have the same effect. Don’t be surprised if you pump for 10 minutes immediately following a feeding or even an hour later and get nothing or just a few drops. The stimulation will tell your body to make more milk. It may take several days to see results.

Always be sure to be seen by a qualified health care provider for high fevers, prolonged illness, or severe symptoms.