Breastfeeding & Acute Illness

By Krista Gray, IBCLC. Last updated September 28, 2013.

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Is it safe to breastfeed when I’m sick?

Most mothers will come down with some sort of acute illness while breastfeeding.  Whether it’s the common cold, influenza, food poisoning, or an infection that requires antibiotics, it can be a scary thought worrying about whether it is still safe to breastfeed.  The good news is that in ALL of these scenarios it is not only safe to breastfeed, but also provides the greatest level of immune protection for your baby.

What happens to my breast milk when I’m sick?

When a breastfeeding mother comes into contact with any germ (whether she comes down with the illness or not) her body immediately begins to produce IgA antibodies specific to exactly what she has come into contact with. This antigen response travels to the mammary glands where antibody protection will be present in the breast milk a baby consumes. 1  Secretory IgA lines your baby’s immature intestinal and urinary tracts and oral pharynx to help fight these invader pathogens.

A mother’s body will make this antibody response in her breast milk when she comes in contact with any germ or bacteria, as well as if her baby does (since she will come into contact with the germs by touching her baby).  A mother’s breast milk does NOT contain the contagious germs passing them along to the baby.  Rather, the opposite happens: the antibodies to fight the germs pass through breast milk to a nursing child.

Why is it important to breastfeed when I am acutely ill?

By the time a mother comes down with symptoms of an acute illness that is contagious, she has already come into contact with the specific germs and is passing them to others.  Her baby has already been exposed to the germs as well.  Though complete at birth, a baby’s immune system is still immature and cannot make its own antibody response to help fight the invaders.  But breast milk has the antibody response already in it, to help a baby’s body fight the germs.  Breast milk is the best defense to help protect her baby from also getting sick.  Stopping breastfeeding while a mother is acutely ill will not only have a deleterious impact on her milk supply but also put her baby at greater risk of getting sick.  Even in a situation where a breastfeeding mother could quarantine herself and not see her baby during the duration of the time she is ill, continuing to breastfeed and coming in close contact with her baby will still provide her infant better protection than any alternative. Not only does breast milk provide immunological protection, it also provides comfort to a baby, as well as protecting him from the plethora of documented harms of formula.

Is there anything else I can do to protect my baby from acute illness?

Breastfeeding is the best protection.  In addition, taking common health precautions such as washing your hands frequently (especially after blowing your nose and before touching baby) and not kissing him on his mouth are important sanitary measures.  In a highly contagious situation, a mother could even wear a face mask to help ensure she doesn’t breathe directly on her baby.  Even if your baby does get sick, he will have a milder case and/or it last for a shorter duration than if you had not been breastfeeding.

Specific Conditions

Food Poisoning

Though food poisoning can leave a mother feeling like death warmed over, her milk continues to be safe for her baby. 2  Typical symptoms include diarrhea and vomiting, exhaustion and abdominal cramps.  If the poisoning is severe, she may lose a considerable amount of weight in a few days’ time.  Food poisoning is usually self-limiting, lasting 24-72 hours.  If it requires antibiotics or other medications, make sure to mention to your doctor that you are breastfeeding so he can prescribe a drug(s) that is compatible with breastfeeding.  You can also search for medications that are compatible with breastfeeding on the LactMed link on the right sidebar of this page.

Common Cold

The common cold can leave a breastfeeding mother feeling absolutely miserable.  Sore throat, congestion, cough, aches and pains…though antibiotics are usually not warranted, over-the-counter cold relievers might be.  When a mother has a cold, her milk has antibodies to this virus that will help to protect her baby from getting sick, or lessen the severity.  It is best to try natural remedies before turning to OTC medications, though most OTC drugs are compatible with nursing and any potential harm is still less than the known dangers of formula.  Search the LactMed link on the right sidebar of this page to check on a specific OTC remedy.  Some natural remedies for a cold include the following:

  • Drinking plenty of liquids and getting lots of rest
  • Steam pots  to loosen congestion in the sinuses and lungs
  • Chicken soup made from rich bone broth
  • Fresh lemon and raw honey in hot water for sore throat
  • Gargling salt water for sore throat
  • Remember that fever is your body’s way of fighting infection so allowing it to rise significantly before taking a fever reducer will allow your body to learn to fight the infection

Influenza

Along with many symptoms of a common cold, the flu also leaves a person with a fever, chills, and body aches.  Though it may be viral, secondary bacterial infections can arise that may require antibiotics. There are many natural remedies that can help alleviate symptoms (see above section), but, like with a cold, many medications are compatible with breastfeeding and it is better to continue breastfeeding while exposing your baby to small amounts of medicine than to switch to the well-documented harms of formula. Search the LactMed link on the right sidebar of this page to check on specific over-the-counter and antibiotic remedies.

Along with continuing to breastfeed so the baby receives antibodies to fight the flu, it is important to implement basic sanitation principles – hand washing, no kissing/breathing directly on baby, possibly use a face mask, etc.

Acute Illness Requiring Antibiotics

There are many illnesses that require a breastfeeding mom to take a round of antibiotics: mastitis, upper respiratory infection, urinary tract infection, tonsillitis, and so forth.  Whatever the acute illness, finding an antibiotic that will treat the illness and is compatible with breastfeeding is almost always possible.  However, many health care providers are not educated on this topic and simply read the drug manufacturers’ insert (which provides no helpful information about breastfeeding and drug usage).  Make sure to inform your doctor you are breastfeeding and wish to continue.  Inform yourself and share information with your doctor/pharmacist about breast milk compatibility and medications, how medications affect breast milk, and how medications affect your breastfed baby. Search the LactMed link on the right sidebar for information about a specific medication. Working together you will be able to find a medication that is compatible with breastfeeding.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Riordan, J. & Wambach, K. (2010) Breastfeeding and Human Lactation, 4th ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, pp. 142-3.
  2.  Mohrbacher, N. (2010) Breastfeeding Answers Made Simple. Amarillo, TX: Hale Publishing, p. 732.
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