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Breastfeeding During Illness

Posted by Wendy Wright on

Help! I’m sick! Can I still Breastfeed?

When asked why they choose to breastfeed, many parents will say that it’s because breastfeeding keeps babies healthy. The immune properties of breastmilk are not only the building blocks of your baby’s immune system, but are the protection your baby has until his own system is developed enough to take over.

If you develop a cold, the flu, a bacterial infection, or another routine illness, you may wonder if your will baby get sick because you’re breastfeeding. Whether breastfeeding or formula feeding, your infant has been exposed to the illness by the time your symptoms develop. And unlike formula feeding, breastfeeding will actively protect your baby. Oftentimes, everyone in the family gets sick except for the breastfed baby! If he does get sick, the illness is often shorter and less severe for a breastfed baby.

When you are exposed to an illness, your immune system starts making antibodies to fight off that illness, and these are delivered to your baby via breastmilk – probably before you even know that you’re getting sick. Amazingly, if baby is exposed to a novel germ, your immune system is notified. It starts producing immunities to that pathogen and delivering them back to baby through breastfeeding. Your milk adapts not only to your baby’s nutritional needs, but also to his immediate immune needs!

Bacterial and viral illnesses (cold, flu, sore throat, mastitis, fever, food poisoning, thrush) rarely mean you can’t breastfeed. Newborns are especially susceptible to complications from illnesses, though; so, the influenza vaccination is recommended for pregnant moms, as it will help to protect your baby (along with breastfeeding) during those first weeks and months of life.

Taking some common sense prevention measures while you’re ill will go even farther toward keeping your breastfeeding baby healthy:

  • Practice good hand hygiene – wash your hands often, especially before feedings
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes
  • Consider flu precautions: have someone else feed your baby, if possible, or consider wearing a mask while feeding to limit your baby’s exposure to the germs
  • Keep from kissing baby
  • If you are especially fatigued, tuck your baby into bed with you and do nothing but rest and nurse
  • Keep hydrated and nurse frequently to avoid a dip in milk supply. A brief interruption in supply may occur during illness, but typically rebounds once you are feeling better. Nursing more often once you feel up to it can help.
  • Use caution with over-the-counter medications (some cold remedies may be detrimental to your milk supply)
  • If your doctor prescribes medication for your illness, remind him or her that you’re breastfeeding. Most medications are compatible with breastfeeding. If not, an alternative can usually be found.
  • Consider natural remedies for symptoms, such as saline nose drops or throat rinses, humidifiers, etc.

If your illness requires hospitalization, you may find that you need to pump to keep up your milk supply. Ask if the hospital where you are being treated has a lactation consultant on staff or if they have a hospital-grade pump you can use while you are an inpatient. You may want to check with your doctor or the hospital staff to see if your baby can be brought to you for feedings, along with a support person to help both you and baby. Know what medications you are given, and make sure they are compatible with breastfeeding.

Nursing your baby through a maternal illness can sometimes be challenging – especially if you are fatigued. But it’s well worth it to keep baby healthy!


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