Your breastfeeding journey was going great. You had your rhythm down, your baby was growing nicely along the curve, and you loved those lovely bonding moments with your little one.
But something’s thrown a curveball your way: You’ve gotten sick.
Maybe it’s a cold, or perhaps it’s something more serious. Perhaps you even need to take medication for it. But one question looms large in your mind: What does this mean for your breastfed baby?
Actually, you probably have more questions than just that one. Here are five of the most common questions about breastfeeding your baby when you’re sick or on medication.
Is it okay to keep feeding my baby when I’m sick?
Yes, it’s safe to keep feeding your baby when you’re sick. Most illnesses, whether chronic or short-term, don’t require you to stop breastfeeding. The best course of action usually is to continue breastfeeding.
That’s because when you’re sick, your body creates antibodies to fight the illness. Your breast milk is part of that process — it produces antibodies that help protect your baby from the disease.
Fun fact: Antibodies to past illnesses, even those from years ago, show up in your breast milk. So that case of the flu that you had last year? Your baby is benefiting from your immunity to the disease.
But won’t my baby get sick?
When it comes to contagious illnesses, here’s the unfortunate truth: You’re usually infectious well before you have symptoms. So when you come down with something, be it the common cold or the flu or Covid 19, your baby has likely been exposed before you knew you had it.
In the meantime, you can take steps to prevent spreading germs further by:
Breastfeeding so your baby gets the antibodies they need
Washing your hands
Wearing a mask
Breastfeeding antibodies are especially important because they do more than keep your baby from getting sick in the first place. They also teach your baby’s immune system how to work.
Thankfully, most common contagious illnesses aren’t hazardous — they’re more unpleasant than anything. However, if your baby does get sick, they tend to recover quickly and easily. The exception to this is if your baby is under 2 months old: If they get sick, contact their healthcare provider right away, as illnesses at this age can be more serious.
What if I have Covid-19?
While rates of Covid-19 have been declining across the United States thanks to vigorous vaccination efforts, social distancing, mask-wearing, and other protective measures, the pandemic may be endemic in communities for some time.
Risks for newborns and infants haven’t been thoroughly studied yet, but signs indicate an elevated risk for serious cases among them. As such, it’s important to be cautious if you contract Covid-19 and monitor your baby for signs and symptoms.
But that doesn’t mean you should stop breastfeeding. On the contrary, continuing to breastfeed is one of the best things you can do for your baby if you get Covid-19. Researchers find that COVID-19 antibodies make their way into your breast milk, potentially making it a potent source of protection.
Are there any illnesses that require me to wean?
While most illnesses and diseases don’t impact your ability to breastfeed, there are some situations where you should proceed with caution. These include receiving radiation treatment or chemotherapy for cancer, or diagnosis with tuberculosis, measles, septicemia, human T-cell leukemia virus type 1 (HTLV-1), and HIV or AIDS.
However, only HIV/AIDS and HTLV-1 are contraindicated in breastfeeding. For the other diseases, you may choose to work with an IBCLC and your healthcare team to figure out the best combination of medication and treatment that supports your health along with your breastfeeding journey.
No matter what, if you have questions about an illness and its impact on your breastfeeding journey, reach out to an IBCLC for help. They can work with you to figure out your best options.
What should I do to keep my baby safe when I’m sick?
Being a parent is a full-time job, even when you’re sick. But one of the best ways to speed up your recovery is to rest. As much as it’s possible, rest and breastfeed your baby. If you need help with other children or household chores, enlist family or friends to support you to build your strength up.
In the meantime, follow general hygiene practices:
Wash your hands frequently with soap and water
Drink lots of extra fluids
Wash your clothing and bedding frequently
If you have to sneeze or cough, do so into the crook of your elbow or a tissue
Will being sick affect my milk supply?
No matter the source of your illness, being sick can deplete you. And it can deplete your milk supply if you’re not careful. This isn’t because illnesses have a special breast milk-zapping power, though. Instead, it’s because when you feel crummy, you’re less likely to nurse or pump as long. Moreover, some medications, like antihistamines, can dry up your milk.
The decrease in milk supply isn’t permanent, though. Keep drinking lots of water and nursing frequently, and your supply will bounce back as you recover.
“Sometimes — but not always! — being ill can be stressful on your body, and you may see a dip in your supply,” tells Lori Theisen, Nest Collaborative IBCLC. To recover and protect your milk supply, she advises that you “Stay hydrated, eat well, get lots of rest, and nurse on cue.”
And if your supply dips? Theisen suggests adding in pumping and meeting with an IBCLC for support.
What can I do if I need to go to the hospital for care or surgery?
Whether you’re in the hospital for emergency care or a scheduled surgery, it’s hard to be away from your baby. Not only do you miss your little one, but you’re also likely concerned about your ability to breastfeed your baby during this time.
If you’re in the hospital, check with your care team to see if they allow babies to stay with their breastfeeding parent. (Some hospitals support this while others don’t.) If they don’t, or if your medical care requires you to miss nursing sessions, request access to a hospital-grade electric pump. These machines work quickly and help you maintain your milk supply.
Being sick, in the hospital, and away from your baby can be overwhelming, so don’t be shy about getting support. Ask to see the hospital IBCLC to figure out the right pumping plan for your milk supply.
Is the medication that I’m taking breastfeeding safe?
Breathe easy. Most medications are breastfeeding safe, and while some do pass through breast milk, how much they impact your baby varies depending on your baby’s age, the dosage of the medication, and the frequency at which you take it.
A good resource for understanding the impact of both prescription and over-the-counter medication is the National Library of Medicine’s LactMed database, but always communicate your breastfeeding goals to your physician.
Not sure they’ll be supportive? An IBCLC can be a valuable part of your healthcare team and help make sure your physicians are up-to-date on breastfeeding science. They’re also there to help you understand which medications are safe for breastfeeding and which ones aren’t.
“Never pump and dump,” reminds Theisen. “Label this milk as ‘do not feed’ and store it in the refrigerator/freezer. Then immediately make an appointment with your IBCLC for help to see the safety of the medication.”
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