Breastfeeding When You or Your Baby Are Sick

Colds, the Flu, Ear Infections, and Stomach Bugs

Hispanic mother holding unhappy baby girl
Ariel Skelley / Getty Images

Life happens, even when you're breastfeeding. Moms and babies can come down with a cold or another illness. When you're sick, or you have a sick baby, you may worry about whether or not you should continue to breastfeed. Here's what you need to know about breastfeeding when you or baby are sick. 

Breastfeeding a Sick Baby

Breastfeeding can help protect your baby from getting sick, but it cannot completely prevent illness. At some point, your child may get an ear infection, catch a cold, or develop an upset stomach. When this happens, the best thing you can do for your child is to continue to breastfeed. Breastfeeding helps children when they are sick because: 

When Your Baby Has a Cold

If your baby has a cold and a stuffy nose, but she can still breastfeed OK, you don't have to do anything to treat her stuffy nose. However, a stuffy nose can often make breastfeeding more difficult. Since infants breathe through their nose, it can be frustrating for the baby as she tries to nurse and breathe at the same the time. If your child is fussy at the breast and not breastfeeding well, you can try to ease the nasal congestion to make breastfeeding more comfortable for her.  

How to Deal With Nasal Congestion:

  • Use a bulb syringe aspirator to gently suck out the mucus from your baby’s nostrils before nursing.
  • Saline nose drops for infants can be used to help loosen secretions and open the nasal passages.
  • Hot, moist air from a humidifier can help clear the nose and make it easier for your baby to breathe. If you do not have a humidifier, steam can work as a humidifier. You just have to sit in the bathroom with the baby while you run a hot shower. 
  • Try breastfeeding your child in an upright position.
  • If your baby continues to have a difficult time breastfeeding, contact your pediatrician.
  • Do not give your baby any over-the-counter medication without first consulting the doctor.

When Your Baby Has an Ear Infection

An ear infection can be painful, especially during breastfeeding. If your little one is in pain, he may only breastfeed for a short time at each feeding. So, it's important to breastfeed very often. You may need to pump or express some breast milk between feedings to relieve breast engorgement and keep up your milk supply. Notify your pediatrician if you suspect your child has an ear infection. The doctor may want to see the baby and prescribe an antibiotic.

When Your Baby Has a Stomach Bug

Gastrointestinal illness is less common in breastfed babies, but it can happen. Vomiting and diarrhea can be very dangerous in infancy since they can lead to dehydration. However, breast milk helps fight diarrhea. It is easily digested and more likely to stay down when your baby is sick. Therefore, if your child has a stomach bug, be sure to breastfeed frequently to replace the fluids your child is losing and keep your baby hydrated.

How a Child's Illness Affects Breastfeeding

Depending on the illness and the child, you may see a change in your breastfeeding routine when your child is sick. A sick child may need more comfort and want to breastfeed more often or stay at the breast for a longer time at each feeding. Or, your child may not feel well, sleep more, and breastfeed less.

If your child is breastfeeding less:

When to Notify Your Child's Pediatrician

If your child has a little cold but is still breastfeeding well, you can continue to monitor her. However, if you're ever concerned about your baby you should feel comfortable consulting the doctor. You should also call your baby's doctor if:

  • Your child has a fever. A fever is a sign of an infection. You can continue to breastfeed but call the doctor. Your baby may need an antibiotic.
  • Your baby is not breastfeeding well.  If you notice a change in your baby's breastfeeding pattern and all of a sudden your child isn't breastfeeding well or refusing to nurse, you should notify the doctor right away. Poor feeding in infants can be a sign of illness. It can also quickly lead to dehydration.
  • The baby isn't wetting her diaper. If your child is only producing a small amount of dark, concentrated urine, that's a concern. It's a sign that she's not breastfeeding well and becoming dehydrated. 
  • Your child is vomiting. If your baby is vomiting after most feedings, it's a sign that something is not right. Call the doctor or take your child to an emergency room. 

Breastfeeding When You Have a Cold or the Flu 

Moms get sick, too. You can come down with a minor illness at any time, even when you have a child that is still breastfeeding. For most minor issues, you don't have to stop breastfeeding.

Some of the common illnesses that you can safely continue to breastfeed through are:  

  • The common cold
  • The Flu
  • Diarrhea
  • Bronchitis
  • A sinus infection
  • A sore throat
  • A cough
  • A urinary tract infection (UTI)
  • Vomiting
  • A Fever
  • Mastitis

Tips for Breastfeeding When You Have a Cold or Other Illness

You may be worried that you'll get your baby sick if you continue to breastfeed while you have a cold or the flu. But, since breastfeeding keeps you in close contact with your baby, he or she will have most likely already been exposed to the illness by the time you realize that you're sick. Plus, your breast milk contains antibodies to the illness and can actually protect your baby from catching what you have. Continuing to breastfeed your baby through your minor sickness is the best thing you can do. Here are some tips for breastfeeding when you are sick. 

  1. Wash your hands often. Washing before breastfeeding or touching your baby will help to minimize the spread of germs to your baby and your breasts.
  2. Try not to cough or sneeze directly onto the baby.
  3. Get enough rest. Your body needs extra energy to fight off the illness, and continue to make a healthy supply of breast milk for your baby
  4. Drink plenty of fluids. You will need additional fluids to prevent dehydration and a decrease in your milk supply, especially if you have a fever. 
  5. Keep an eye on your milk supply. You may notice a decline in your milk supply during an illness, but it is usually temporary. It should bounce back once you are feeling well again.
  6. Check with your doctor before you take any over-the-counter (OTC) medications. There are some OTC medications that are safe to take while you're breastfeeding. However, some medications can pass to the baby through the breast milk, and others can decrease your milk supply. 
  7. If you need to see your doctor, be sure to let her know that you are breastfeeding before she prescribes any medication.
  1. If your child does catch what you have, you can still breastfeed. Breastfeeding a sick child provides fluids, nutrition, and comfort.

There are only a few illnesses that prevent moms from breastfeeding. You can breastfeed through most of the typical minor illnesses that you or baby might catch. Whenever you're in doubt or have concerns about your health or your child's health, you should contact your healthcare provider. 

 

View Article Sources
  • Ballard, O., & Morrow, A. L. Human Milk Composition: Nutrients and Bioactive Factors. Pediatric Clinics of North America. 2013; 60 (1): 49–74.
  • Lawrence, Ruth A., MD, Lawrence, Robert M., MD.  Breastfeeding A Guide For The Medical Profession Eighth Edition. Elsevier Health Sciences. 2015.
  • Riordan, J., and Wambach, K. Breastfeeding and Human Lactation Fourth Edition. Jones and Bartlett Learning. 2014.