Is it safe to breastfeed when you're sick?

Breastfeeding

I remember when my eldest boy was around four months old and I got the most horrific bout of ‘stomach flu.’ I think you can probably imagine what was happening to me! It didn’t last long, maybe 36 hours…but I could barely move without vomiting or pooping myself (TMI?) and I could not keep anything down…yuk.

It was one of the few times I said to my husband, ‘I simply can’t feed him right now, just get the milk out of the freezer and do what you can.’ I was just wrecked. Wrecked, but I was also worried about giving my son whatever bug I had. It was something I’d never thought about before – should I breastfeed when I’m ill? Maybe I should stay away from him for a while? He’s so little, I can’t give him this illness, he will lose too much weight!

Once I could keep down some marmite on toast, I decided to ‘Google’ if it was okay to breastfeed when ill. As always, there was an abundance of information and often contradictory. I prefer to fill my brain with concise, scientifically quantified research, so when I asked Adam - the co-founder of Cadenshae - if I could write about this topic for the site, he was all for it. “It’s so important our mums get the right information,” he said.

So, in the interests of keeping our mamas informed, I’ve done some research and got some quality advice from Julia Daly an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant - she knows her milk!

Here’s what I learnt:

It is very, very rare for a mother to need to stop breastfeeding for any illness. There are only a few serious conditions that might require a mum to stop nursing for a period of time, or permanently. 

Paediatrician Dr. Ruth Lawrence says, “HIV and HTLV-1 are the only infectious diseases that are considered absolute contraindications to breastfeeding in developed countries.” In other words, unless you have HIV or HTLV-1 (leukaemia), it’s best for you and your baby to continue to nurse.

Withholding your breast milk during an illness increases the possibility that your baby will contract the infection, and deprives your child of the comfort and nutrition it needs. When you’re sick, your breast milk will develop antibodies against the illness, as well as white blood cells, stem cells and protective enzymes. These will all help fight the infection and protect your baby…far better than anything else could. So, keep on feeding…even though it’s probably the last thing you feel like doing! Being a mum is a super tough ride when you’re under the weather!

(Did you know that when your baby is sick, the composition of your breast milk changes to help fight the infection too? The milk will actually turn a yellow colour (like colostrum) as it builds up immunity-boosting cells (leukocytes) to help heal your baby. Breast milk truly is an amazing thing, no wonder it’s been dubbed, ‘liquid gold’).

Aside from continuing to feed, you can take other precautions to prevent your baby from getting sick: wash your hands often, avoid sneezing/coughing on your baby, limit face-to-face contact etc. In a world of Covid-19, I think we’ve all become pretty good at ‘slowing the spread.’

Another reason it’s important to continue breastfeeding is to keep your supply up. If you’re sick for a week and don’t feed your baby often, your supply could drop off. Continue to feed at regular intervals and drink enough fluids (more than usual) to keep your supply at a healthy level. 

Feeling sick and nursing can be extremely tiring. You’ll need to look after yourself so you can best look after your baby. As mentioned, keep your fluid levels up, eat as much as you can and rest as much as possible for a good few days. Close the doors, hunker down and watch some tele with bubs on the couch. It’s also a good time to ‘call in the cavalry.’ Get Grandma, Grandad, your sister, brother or a bestie in to help…whoever’s available so you can recover as fast as possible.

When it comes to medications, you can for the most part continue to feed if you need them for your condition, but it’s important to let your doctor know you’re nursing so they can ensure any medication you’re taking won't harm your baby.

However, some medications can cause your milk supply to diminish. If you find yourself in this situation and want to avoid this - drink plenty of fluids, continue to breastfeed and try to limit the medications you’re on, if it’s safe to do so. Keep in mind though that sometimes stopping/limiting the medications you require will cause more damage to your health than it’s worth, so it’s best to weigh things up properly and figure out what is best for you and your situation. Sometimes the cons of not taking the medications far outweigh the pros. If you need the medications to stay healthy – take them! Formula is just fine, so don’t feel guilty if you have to pop some pills, bubs will be okay! 

At the end of the day you must always look after yourself first so you’re strong enough to look after your little one. Period. Full stop. Enough said.

If you’re feeling rubbish right now, I hope you feel better soon! Just lower your standards for a bit, give the older kids some baked beans on toast for dinner, put the T.V on all day, let the kids wear their favourite shirt for the third day in a row…who cares...just do as little as possible right now so you can bounce back faster and continue on in your role as ‘Supermum.’ You’ve totally got this!

You rock mama, get well soon.

Written by Ellen Chisholm in conjunction with International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, Julia Daly.


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