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Is it safe to breastfeed while I'm sick?
In most cases, it's safe to breastfeed your baby when you're sick. If you have a common illness like a cold or the flu, you can still breastfeed, because these germs don't pass into your breast milk.
Continuing to nurse while you're sick actually might be the best thing you can do to protect your little one. Your breast milk contains antibodies for fighting the germs that caused you to get sick, so if your baby nurses while you're not feeling well, he'll receive protection from your illness or will have an easier time recovering from it.
If you're feeling too sick to breastfeed but feel up to pumping, you can have a healthy adult feed your child the expressed milk instead. Staying hydrated and using a double, electric breast pump can help stimulate your milk supply, which sometimes diminishes when you're not feeling well.
However, it's best not to breastfeed when you have certain illnesses. See our safe and unsafe lists below for guidance – but also talk to your doctor. (Note: Recommendations are often different in developing countries, where the risk of infant mortality is higher if the baby doesn't breastfeed.)
How can I keep my baby from getting sick when I'm sick?
In addition to continuing to nurse, the steps below can lower the chances of your baby catching an illness such as a cold, flu, stomach virus, or fever.
When you sneeze, cough, or even talk in close proximity to your baby, droplets from your respiratory system carry germs that could make her sick. To prevent germs from spreading:
- Wash your hands frequently with soap and water, especially before feeding or holding your child.
- Wear a face mask whenever you're in close contact with your little one, including during nursing sessions.
- Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when sneezing or coughing. Immediately throw the tissue away, then wash your hands or use hand sanitizer.
- Avoid touching your baby's eyes, nose, and mouth.
- Disinfect household surfaces such as counters, tables, doorknobs, and faucets often.
- Put a clean, dry cloth blanket between you and your baby every time you hold or feed her.
- Wash your breasts before feedings with mild soap and warm water. Don't wash around the nipples before every feeding though, as you they could become dry and cracked.
- Don't share eating utensils, drinking glasses, washcloths, towels, beds, pillows, or blankets until you've been symptom-free for at least five days.
- If you have flu, ask your provider about antiviral drugs. If these are an option for you, they can ease your symptoms and shorten the length of your illness, which means less chance of exposure for your baby.
Also, protect your baby by keeping her immunizations current.
- Vaccinations: Make sure your baby is up to date on her vaccinations. If she isn't vaccinated against pneumococcal diseases, for example, she could become seriously ill if she were exposed to pneumococcus bacteria from your sinus infection.
- Flu shot: If your child is at least 6 months old, take her to the doctor's office for a flu shot.
Breastfeeding is safe if you have any of these illnesses:
Chlamydia: Breastfeeding is safe.
Cold, flu, fever, or sore throat: Breastfeeding gives your baby the same antibodies that are helping you fight your illness. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that nursing mothers who have the flu continue to breastfeed as long as they feel well enough. If you're feeling too ill to nurse but feel up to pumping, a healthy adult can feed your child the expressed milk. Be sure to wash your hands frequently with soap and water (especially before touching her or the breast pump), and wear a face mask while nursing.
Food poisoning: The organisms that cause food poisoning don't pass through breast milk. Continue breastfeeding and drink plenty of liquids to keep from getting dehydrated.
Gastroenteritis (stomach virus or "stomach flu"): It's safe to continue breastfeeding even if you're suffering from the symptoms of a stomach virus, such as diarrhea or vomiting. Just be sure to wash your hands frequently, avoid sharing eating utensils, and take steps to avoid spreading germs to your baby.
Gonorrhea: Breastfeeding is safe.
Hepatitis A: Breastfeeding is safe.
Hepatitis B: Breastfeeding is safe. Your child should receive a dose of hepatitis B immune globulin (HBIG) and the first of three doses of hepatitis B vaccine soon after birth.
HPV (human papilloma virus): Breastfeeding is safe.
Iron-deficiency anemia: Breastfeeding is safe. Taking iron supplements while nursing won't harm your child.
Lyme disease: Breastfeeding is safe, but if you're taking antibiotics, talk to your doctor and your baby's doctor to make sure the antibiotics are safe for nursing babies.
Mastitis: This painful inflammation of the breast doesn't pose any risk to your little one. Frequent breastfeeding or pumping to fully empty the breasts can help you recover sooner.
West Nile virus: Breastfeeding is safe. Scientists have found a few cases of West Nile virus transmission through breastfeeding, but none led to any illness in the babies.
Zika infection: Breastfeeding is safe. Researchers have found the Zika virus in breast milk, but there have been no reports of infants becoming sick from a Zika virus infection through breastfeeding.
Ask your doctor if it's safe to breastfeed if you have any of these illnesses:
Chicken pox: If your infection began within five days before giving birth or two days afterward, the doctor may recommend that your child get an injection of varicella-zoster immune globulin and that you avoid direct contact with him – though it's okay to use expressed milk (as long as you have no lesions on your breasts and no lesions came into contact with the pumped milk). After all of your chicken pox lesions have crusted over, it's safe for you to hold and nurse him. This usually takes about a week.
Cytomegalovirus (CMV): Breastfeeding is usually safe, but it's best to check with your child's doctor. The virus can pass to the baby through your milk and, in very rare cases, lead to health problems – especially in preterm infants or babies with extremely low birth weight.
Depression: Experts encourage women with depression to breastfeed, but if you're taking an antidepressant, ask your healthcare provider whether it's safe to nurse.
Hepatitis C: If your nipples aren't injured, you can safely nurse your baby. There's no evidence of infants contracting hepatitis C through breast milk. However, there isn't enough research data to know for sure if it's safe for women with hepatitis C to breastfeed when they have cracked or bleeding nipples. If your nipples are injured, the doctor may advise you to stop nursing temporarily, because the virus can be passed through infected blood. (To keep your milk supply up, you can pump and discard the expressed milk.)
Herpes simplex: If you have lesions on your breast, don't nurse from the affected breast until the sores have healed. It's safe to use milk that you pumped while you had lesions, as long as the pump didn't come into contact with any open sores. Breastfeeding is safe when you don't have any lesions on your breasts.
High blood pressure: Many drugs used to treat chronic high blood pressure are considered safe to take while you're breastfeeding, but some are not. Ask your doctor whether your blood pressure medication is safe to take while nursing.
Lupus: Most moms with lupus can breastfeed safely, but talk with your doctor about your medications. Some medications used to treat systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) may not be safe to take if you're nursing.
Sickle cell disease: It's likely you can breastfeed, but sickle cell disease treatment can be complex. Talk to your doctor about your options.
Syphilis: Breastfeeding is safe when you don't have any lesions on your breasts. If you have lesions on a breast, don't nurse from the affected breast until the sores have healed. It's safe to use milk that you pumped while you had lesions, as long as the pump didn't come into contact with any open sores.
Thrush (nipple or breast yeast infection): It's safe to breastfeed. However, yeast infections can be passed back and forth between your breasts and your baby's mouth through breastfeeding, so it's important that you are both treated at the same time. Breastfeeding with a yeast infection can be quite painful. If that's the case, you may want to pump and feed your child expressed milk until your nipples heal.
Toxoplasmosis: Studies haven't shown that toxoplasmosis is transmitted through breast milk, but theoretically it's possible the parasite can pass to your baby through breastfeeding if you have cracked or bleeding nipples during the week or two after you get infected.
Active (contagious) tuberculosis: Tuberculosis (TB) is spread through droplets from an infected person's respiratory system, not breast milk. You can breastfeed – after you've undergone treatment for at least two weeks and your doctor says you're no longer contagious. (Review your TB medication with your doctor to make certain it's safe to take it while breastfeeding.) While you're undergoing treatment, you can pump and have a healthy adult feed the expressed milk to your baby. (While you're contagious, you'll need to completely separate yourself from your little one and have someone else care for her.)
Breastfeeding is not safe if you have any of these illnesses:
Cancer that is being treated with chemotherapy drugs. These medications can interfere with your baby's DNA and cellular health. It's possible to pump and discard your milk to try to keep your milk supply up, but you may find that too much to ask of your body while going through the stress and possible side effects of your cancer treatment. Once your treatment is over, it may be challenging to breastfeed successfully, but if you want to give it a try, talk with your doctor about how and when to approach it. You might also call on the help of a lactation consultant.
Cancer that is being treated with radiation. It's possible to breastfeed after your radiation treatment is completed, but you may find it challenging, depending on how the treatment has affected you. Talk with your doctor about your desire to breastfeed, and enlist the help of a lactation consultant as needed.
HIV infection: Breastfeeding isn't recommended because the virus can be passed to your baby through breast milk. The antiretroviral drugs that are used to treat HIV can also reach your child through breast milk.
HTLV (human T-cell lymphotropic virus) infection, type I or type II: Women who test positive for this virus should not breastfeed because it can pass to a baby through breast milk. HTLV types I and II can cause spinal cord disease, and HTLV type I can cause a rare form of leukemia, eye problems that can lead to vision loss, and other serious conditions.
Substance use disorder: Breastfeeding is not safe. Abused drugs such as marijuana and alcohol pass through breast milk and could harm your child.
Taking medication while you're breastfeeding
Always check with your healthcare provider or pharmacist before taking any medicine while breastfeeding. Many medications are safe for nursing mothers, but others are best avoided. If it turns out you need medicine – antibiotics for a bacterial infection, for example – ask your doctor whether it's safe to take while breastfeeding.
If you have the flu, it's okay to take antiviral drugs prescribed by your doctor, such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu) or zanamivir (Relenza), while breastfeeding. If you've been exposed to the flu and are taking prescribed antivirals as a preventive measure, you can safely continue breastfeeding as long as you don't have any symptoms.
If you need to take a medication that isn't safe for breastfeeding, you can pump and then discard the milk while you're taking it. This keeps your milk supply up. In the meantime, you can feed your child formula or breast milk that you pumped and stored before you started the medication.
For detailed information on the safety of specific drugs while breastfeeding, visit LactMed, a database maintained by the National Institutes of Health.
Is it safe to bottle-feed formula to my baby when I'm sick?
Yes, but with caution. While you're sick with the flu or another illness, you'll need to take precautions to protect your baby from your germs. Follow the precautions discussed above for breastfeeding. The safest option is to have someone else prepare your baby's bottle and feed him.
Can I breastfeed my baby if she's sick?
Definitely. Breastfeeding is one of the best things you can do to help your baby during an illness. Babies need more fluids when they're sick, and breast milk is best for them because it also helps build their immune system.
If your baby's too sick to breastfeed, try offering breast milk from a bottle, syringe, or eyedropper.
Can I formula-feed my baby if she's sick?
Yes – and be extra sure she's getting enough. Babies need more fluids when they're sick, especially if they have dehydrating symptoms, like a high fever, vomiting, or diarrhea.
While she's sick, keep up your baby's fluid intake, and watch her for signs of dehydration.
Learn more about breastfeeding and medication safety