Should you BREASTFEED if you’re SICK?
If a mother is sick, is it still safe for her to breastfeed her baby?
This question comes up A LOT in Facebook groups and private messages to me, and it’s a good question! There is a real fear that if you’re sick, you may get your baby sick, and there’s NOTHING more miserable than a sick baby.
The easy answer to this questions is… YES. You should definitely still breastfeed your baby, even if you sick!
In fact, there’s only a handful of reasons to stop or pause breastfeeding, and many of them are quite rare. For example, you should consult your doctor if you have HIV, an active Herpes outbreak on the breast, or Tuberculosis.
“Breast milk provides protection against many illnesses. There are rare exceptions when breastfeeding or feeding expressed breast milk is not recommended. You, along with your family and healthcare providers, should decide whether and how to start or continue breastfeeding.”(CDC)
Maternal sickness (yes, including COVID-19), mastitis, and most surgical procedures are NOT reasons to quit breastfeeding or switch to pumping.
Breast milk provides protection against many illnesses and is the best source of nutrition for most infants.https://www.cdc.gov/breastfeeding/breastfeeding-special-circumstances/maternal-or-infant-illnesses/covid-19-and-breastfeeding.html
This is the MOST important thing to remember here! Even if your baby does get sick (we’ll talk about how to prevent that in a minute), the antibodies in your breastmilk will help them recover faster and likely not get as sick as they would have without it.
Your fully developed, adult immune system can make more and better antibodies at a much faster rate than their tiny, growing immune system. When we weight the risks and benefits of a baby getting sick with common illnesses vs. taking away the antibodies, nutrients, and other benefits of breastfeeding it seems pretty clear. The benefits of continued breastfeeding almost always outweigh the risks of a baby getting sick.
How to prevent your baby from getting sick
Ideally, you can continue breastfeeding, recover from your illness, and your baby doesn’t even notice. Here are some steps you can take to prevent your baby from catching whatever you have.
Many viruses and bacteria do not travel through your breastmilk to the baby. In light of recent events, the CDC states, “In limited studies, COVID-19 has not been detected in breast milk; however we do not know for sure whether mothers with COVID-19 can spread the virus via breast milk.”
Newer illnesses are a bit tricky, but research on other more common illness can be found, depending on what you’ve become sick with so do a little digging!
Here’s what you can do to help your baby from getting sick:
- WASH YOUR HANDS OFTEN and always before touching baby
- Use hand sanitizer if needed
- If you have respiratory symptoms, wear a face covering while handling the baby (Find a DIY tutorial here!)
- Avoid kissing your baby or touching your face
- Double-check any medications you are taking (more on this down below)
- Clean household surfaces, throw away used tissues, and practice other hygiene methods to reduce the spread
- Clean and sanitize any bottles, pump parts, pacifiers, that come in contact with breastmilk or your baby
The WHO has similar recommendations for new mothers. When asked if they could still hold and breastfeed their babies after birth even if they were sick, they stated:
“Yes. Close contact and early, exclusive breastfeeding helps a baby to thrive. You should be supported to:
– Breastfeed safely, with good respiratory hygiene
– Hold your newborn skin-to-skin, and
– Share a room with your baby
You should wash your hands before and after touching your baby, and keep all surfaces clean.”https://www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/q-a-on-covid-19-pregnancy-childbirth-and-breastfeeding
Here they’re specifically referring to the current COVID-19 outbreak, but this applies to most all common illnesses. They recognize the importance of early, frequent breastfeeding in the overall health and long term effects on the baby and mother. Again, the risks vs. benefits of breastfeeding should be clear in most cases. Breastmilk will help the baby better fight off illness and reduce their chance of even getting sick in the first place!
If you choose to express breast milk…
You definitely don’t have to switch to pumping if you’re sick, but I get it, sometimes it’s what’s best for your unique situation. Ideally, the baby still feeds at the breast, but here are a few tips for feeding expressed breast milk while you are sick.
If you are sick and choose to express breast milk: (for example, you are hospitalized or self-quarantine yourself at home)
– Express breastmilk to establish and maintain milk supply
– A dedicated breast pump should be provided
– Wash hands before touching any pump or bottle parts and before expressing breastmilk
– Follow recommendations for proper pump cleaning after each use, cleaning all parts that come into contact with breastmilk.
– If possible, consider having someone who is well, feed the expressed breastmilk to the infant.CDC – https://www.cdc.gov/breastfeeding/breastfeeding-special-circumstances/maternal-or-infant-illnesses/covid-19-and-breastfeeding.html
As you can see, switching to the pump is going to add a few more steps, and a breast pump is never as good as a baby at the breast. If you do choose to pump, make sure things are sterilized and you aren’t skipping any pump sessions to sneak in some extra rest! It can be detrimental to your breastfeeding journey in the long run.
What about your milk supply?
Unfortunately, it’s common for mothers milk supply to dip a little during a sickness. Your body is working hard to fight the infection and in turn, there’s a little less energy for making milk.
This is another reason why continued breastfeeding is so important! You need that stimulation and constant milk removal to help maintain and increase your supply.
Don’t forget to eat, drink, and rest as much as you can. If you’re not taking in enough calories, your body will definitely struggle to make enough milk (even if you’re not sick!) so NO SKIPPING MEALS. This is also not the time to start or dig deep into an exercise routine, even if you do feel up for it.
Breastmilk and Medications
So what if your doctor prescribes you a medication?
This is a tricky topic, even for healthcare providers. To be fair, many providers are just not trained to know a lot about medications and mothers milk so they sometimes air on the side of caution and advise to stop breastfeeding while you’re taking anything.
The best thing you can do, is check with your local lactation consultant who IS trained and up-to-date on recent studies about medications and mothers milk. You’d be surprised at how many are perfectly safe to breastfeed, even if your HCP isn’t quite sure.
You can also check on LactMed to see what the current research says. Always verify with your trusted HCP, but don’t be afraid to ask questions and get a second opinion before you stop breastfeeding for a medication.
So, should you breastfeed if you’re sick?
In short, almost always the answer is, yes. YES. YESSSSSSS!
If you still have questions about your unique situation, check with your local lactation consultant either at your hospital or in a private practice. Most insurance companies cover visits with an IBCLC and you should utilize them as the breastfeeding experts. In combination with your health care provider, hopefully, you’re supported to continue breastfeeding.
~ All things for you and your new little life ~