Many moms wonder if breastfeeding while sick is safe for their children. Sometimes it is safe. Sometimes not.
In almost all cases, abruptly weaning is the worst thing you could do. It causes additional issues that would be the last thing that you or the baby needs when you are already feeling lousy. Breastfeeding allows you to nourish and protect your baby with nutrients and antibodies that can only be produced by your body. No formula could ever compare to the protection your natural milk provides your baby against things in the environment that could make them sick.
So, what happens when the things that could make them sick are within your own body? When you start to sniffle, cough and sneeze, do you stop breastfeeding or keep offering your milk to your baby?
Breastfeeding While Sick with a Virus, Cold or the Flu
Many new mothers do not want to breastfeed when they are coming down with a virus, cold or the flu, because they fear giving their illness to their baby. They fear the baby’s fragile body will not be able to handle the illness, and they just do not want to see their new baby suffer. This is understandable, but the human body already has this covered. In most cases, continuing to offer breast milk is an act of love, since those antibodies in the milk protect the baby from getting sick.
Breastfeeding and COVID-19 (Coronavirus)
There is not enough known about this strand of coronavirus and how it is spread to make good recommendations at this time. The CDC did put out recommendations to take all possible precautions to stop the spread of the illness to infants when the mother has a confirmed case of Coronavirus. However, they did not recommend that moms stop breastfeeding during the outbreak.
Antibodies combat illness inside the baby’s body, and your breast milk is filled with them. Once you start to feel the symptoms of your illness, you can guarantee your baby has already been exposed to the illness. If you stop breastfeeding, chances are high that the baby is going to get sick. You are taking away the antibodies which will help protect them, or at least make the illness less severe for the baby. If you continue breastfeeding, they continue to get the antibodies they need to fight off the illness.
This applies to the common bugs, viruses and flu that you may come down with through the course of your daily life. These temporary illnesses are not likely to harm your baby, even if you are running a fever, throwing up, or experiencing diarrhea. Make sure to mention to your doctor that you are breastfeeding if you are given antibiotics, but there are many antibiotics that are safe for breastfeeding mothers.
Just make sure that any medications (either over-the-counter or prescription drugs) that you take when you are sick are acceptable for breastfeeding moms. While breastfeeding through the illness is ok, all medications are not. So be careful!
Breastfeeding While Sick With a Food-Related Illness
If you eat something bad and get sick, then you should still be safe to continue breastfeeding. Only in very rare cases do you need to stop breastfeeding, but it is important to note the difference between common illnesses and serious diseases that could be passed on to your baby through your breast milk.
Serious Diseases and Concerns May Be Different
If you have a serious disease, it is best to discuss your personal circumstances with your doctor. In most cases, breastfeeding is still best but sometimes additional precautions should be taken so it is best to discuss it.
An example of a serious disease that might prevent you from breastfeeding would be HIV. That is far from an everyday cough or cold, so you might be warned by your doctor to stop breastfeeding immediately after diagnosis.
However, the World Health Organization actually changed their guidelines on this in November 2009. They suggest that the BEST thing is for “HIV-positive mothers or their infants take antiretroviral drugs throughout the period of breastfeeding and until the infant is 12 months old. This means that the child can benefit from breastfeeding with very little risk of becoming infected with HIV.” (Source: Breast is always best, even for HIV-positive mothers, http://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/88/1/10-030110/en/) Your doctor may or may not know of those changes so it is important to talk to him or her about your options, how much you plan to breastfeed, etc..
Another example is chicken pox. While most of us do not consider chicken pox serious, it can be extremely serious for a newborn. If you show symptoms and are diagnosed with chickenpox within the first few days before your baby is born, your baby’s doctor may not want you to breastfeed your newborn.
However, in the last few years, new recommendations establish that this is not necessary, so you should seek a second opinion if it is suggested. Most studies show that the mother/baby bonding and breast milk are more effective to make a baby well than separating them. If this DOES happen to you and you are separated for whatever reason, it is extremely important to at least express your breast milk and give it to your baby even when you cannot breastfeed directly. You antibodies will help protect your newborn.
If you have any illness, chronic condition or other concerns, do ask your doctor and your baby’s doctor for your options. Get a second opinion if you want to be sure. That is what good mamas do!
Breastfeeding and Protecting Your Baby
Even though your baby is usually exposed to your illness before you realize you have it inside your body, it is important to take basic steps to protect your baby as you would colleagues or older children in the home. You want to wash your hands before touching the baby and do your absolute best not to sneeze on the baby.
Your position for breastfeeding will likely change, as you will want to block the baby from your sneezes and coughs as much as possible. There may not be as much bonding and cuddling during feedings, but you can make up for that when you get better!
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Interim Guidance on Breastfeeding for a Mother Confirmed or Under Investigation For COVID-19, CSC, Accessed March 12, 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/specific-groups/pregnancy-guidance-breastfeeding.html
Breast is always best, even for HIV-positive mothers, WHO, Accessed March 12, 2020. http://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/88/1/10-030110/en/
Transfer of antibody via mother’s milk, U.S. Library of Medicine, Accessed March 12, 2020. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12850343