Is It Safe to Breastfeed if You're Sick?
By Nicole Kekesi, Virtua Board-Certified Lactation Consultant
As a new mom, you want to do what’s best for your baby—and if you’re breastfeeding, you’re off to a great start. But it’s only a matter of time before you catch a cold, flu or stomach virus, which may make you worry about the safety of your breast milk.
Although it may seem counter-intuitive, it’s safe—and even beneficial for your baby—to continue breastfeeding when you get sick with a common illness.
In fact, with most common illnesses, you’re contagious a day or two before you begin showing symptoms. So, if you’ve been breastfeeding during this time, your baby has already been exposed to the illness you’ve contracted.
The good news for your baby: The antibodies your body forms to fight your illness pass through your breast milk to your child. This makes your baby less likely to get sick—or, at least not become as sick as you.
However, just as with any illness, it’s still beneficial to take common precautions such as hand washing and avoiding coughing or sneezing on your baby. You also should try to avoid touching your baby’s face or kissing your baby. This is a tall order for any new mom, but do your best!
In addition, take care of yourself to maintain your milk supply. If possible, drink plenty of water and eat a variety of healthy foods. Consider letting your partner or another adult tend to some of the childcare duties while you recover.
Is it safe to take medication while I nurse?
Before you take any over-the-counter (OTC) medications to treat your symptoms, contact your doctor or lactation consultant to make sure the medication is safe for nursing moms.
Most medications are graded from L1 – L5 to identify the risk level of passing them to a baby through breast milk. An L1 medication is very low risk, and an L5 medication is hazardous. Your provider or lactation consultant can tell you where certain medications fall on that list. Although most OTC medications that treat cold and flu symptoms aren't harmful if passed to your baby through breast milk, certain medications—such as decongestants—can affect your milk supply.
When selecting an OTC medication, choose the shortest-acting formula and the lowest possible dose to provide relief. Also, only take medication that treats your specific symptoms. For example, if you only have a runny nose, don’t take medicine designed to treat a runny nose, fever and cough.
In most cases, it’s safe to nurse your baby if you suffer from a chronic condition such as asthma, allergies or diabetes. Just as with colds, the flu and stomach bugs, breastfeeding may reduce the likelihood your baby develops the same chronic condition later in life.
If you take medication for a chronic condition, talk to your doctor (ideally before you become pregnant, but definitely before you give birth) to discuss the risks your medications may pose during pregnancy and nursing. If you’re unable to stop taking your medication, it may be possible to substitute a different medication to lower the risks for your baby.
When should I avoid breastfeeding?
In these circumstances, you shouldn't breastfeed:
- You are undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatment.
- You have HIV (human immunodeficiency virus).
- You have active tuberculosis or are infected with human T-cell lymphotropic virus (Type 1 or Type II).
Call 1-888-VIRTUA-3 to schedule a consultation with a Virtua board-certified lactation consultant. Or, consider one of Virtua’s personalized breastfeeding support options.
Updated November 15, 2017