Breastfeeding: Should you stop if you're sick?

It's flu season and moms everywhere are worried about how to keep their families - and their babies - healthy. You might be wondering - if the dreaded virus does come to your house, should you stop breastfeeding?   

When I was still quite new at motherhood, just getting the hang of breastfeeding, I woke up one morning with flu-like symptoms. I remember thinking that it might not be safe to breastfeed my baby during my illness. I had a slight fever, aches and pains and I definitely did not want to pass this on to my little girl. Not knowing the best thing to do, I decided I would pump and give my daughter a bottle of previously pumped breast milk. What I learned later that day and what I want you to know is that -- although it may seem counter-intuitive -- breastfeeding when you have a cold or the flu is actually beneficial for you and your baby!   

Dr Jack Newman, the founder of the International Breastfeeding Centre, has been helping and advising breastfeeding mothers and their babies for over 38 years. According to Dr. Newman, especially when it comes to infections the mother may have, continuing to breastfeed while sick is ideal:  “Very few illnesses require the breastfeeding parent to stop breastfeeding. This is particularly true for infections the breastfeeding parent might have, and infections are the most common type of illness for which breastfeeding parents are told they must stop.” 

When you consider the way many infections operate, the logic for breastfeeding while sick makes a lot of sense. As Dr. Newman explains, “Viruses cause most infections, and most infections due to viruses are most infectious before the breastfeeding parent even begins to feel sick. By the time the breastfeeding parent has fever (or runny nose, or diarrhea, or cough, or rash, or vomiting etc), the infection has probably already passed on to the baby.” So, even if you think you are protecting your baby by stopping breastfeeding when you feel symptoms, the reality is, before you even showed signs of being sick, you had the capacity to infect others.  

The good news is that breastfeeding actually can shield the baby from the effects of your infection. According to Dr Newman, “breastfeeding protects the baby against infection, and the breastfeeding parent should continue breastfeeding, in order to protect the baby. If the baby does get sick, which is possible, he is likely to get less sick than if breastfeeding had stopped.” 

But how can this be? Because naturally, your instinct is to protect your children, it seems logical that you would want to shield your baby from your illness at all costs and limit your contact with your baby while you’re sick. But as it turns out, continuing to breastfeed is the best way to shield your baby. Consider the way immunization works. The person being immunized is given a weakened version of the virus in order to elicit an immune response so that in the future if the body is exposed to the illness, the body will remember how it fought off the infection before and will engage in this process. According to Dr. Newman, a similar process happens for your baby when you are sick and breastfeeding:  “breast milk protects the baby from getting seriously ill (usually) while, at the same time, the baby gets some virus. It is, in effect, an immunization.”  In fact, parents who breastfeed while sick may be surprised by the results. As Dr. Newman notes: “often parents are pleasantly surprised that their babies do not get sick at all.”  

So, it turns out that breastfeeding while ill is actually best for your baby. But how can it help you? As Dr. Newman states, "Illness sometimes seems to cause milk supply to decrease, especially if a mother has a fever; keeping the baby at the breast and close to the mother skin to skin as much as possible can reduce this risk. " 

With flu season in full effect, it’s important that parents know the facts: breastfeeding while sick is actually the best course of action for mother and baby!  

For more information about nursing when you have the flu, please click here to read this article by Dr. Jack Newman.

Tara Shields
The West Coast NCS & Doula is a Newborn Care Solutions Elite™ NCS and Postpartum Doula
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