How Your Breastmilk Changes When Your Baby Is Sick

baby nursing

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There’s nothing more heartbreaking and worrisome than having a sick baby. If you are breastfeeding, you might be wondering what this means for you. For example, you may have heard that breastmilk is protective for your little one, but you may be unsure if there’s anything different you need to do in terms of feeding to maximize the benefits. You may also be curious how exactly your breastmilk helps your baby when they’re sick.

Thankfully, there’s nothing different you need to do while your baby is under the weather. Your breastmilk adapts naturally to help your baby recover—all you need to do is keep your baby comfortable, keep nursing, and talk to your pediatrician if you have concerns about your baby’s illness.

Let’s take a look at how breastmilk changes when your baby is sick, as well as some expert tips for nursing a baby who isn’t feeling well.

How Breastmilk Protects Babies When They’re Sick

Even when an illness isn’t going through your household, breastmilk provides immunity-boosting properties for your baby. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), your milk contains antibodies from illnesses you may have had in the past. In other words, breastmilk may give your baby an advantage in fighting many of the common illnesses we are all exposed to.

Besides antibodies, breastmilk contains other disease-fighting agents. Proteins, sugars, fats, and white blood cells work to protect your baby against various infections—most notably gastrointestinal infections. This is because breastmilk goes directly into your baby’s digestive system, where tummy bugs dwell. Other components of breastmilk that give your baby immune boosts include proteins like interleukin-6, -8, and -10, and lactoferrin, which have anti-inflammatory qualities.

Ways Your Breastmilk Adapts to a Sick Baby

Even though your breastmilk has a baseline of immunity whether your baby is sick or not, there are some ways that experts believe your breastmilk changes during times that your baby is sick. There are two main ways this happens: antibodies that you produce in response to an infection, and antibodies produced after your body gets the message that your baby is ill.

For example, let’s say you get sick, but your baby isn’t sick yet. As the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine points out, research suggests that as soon as you become ill, you start producing antibodies so that when your baby is exposed to this virus, they will receive these antibodies in your milk and have protection.

This is why you should continue nursing your baby even when you don’t feel well, says Anita Jiha, IBCLC, lactation consultant at HCA Florida Mercy Hospital in Miami, Florida. “Sometimes a [parent] will get sick, but the baby doesn’t because of the immunity the baby gains from the breastmilk,” she notes.

But it goes both ways. If your baby becomes sick first, your body responds by changing the composition of your milk, explains Pierrette Mimi Poinsett, MD, a pediatrician and consultant for Mom Loves Best. This happens during direct breastfeeding while your baby is suckling at the breast and their saliva makes contact with your nipple. “Your breast responds to your baby’s saliva, which sends a message that white blood cells and protective factors need to be increased in breast milk,” Dr. Poinsett explains.

Does the Color of Your Breastmilk Change When Your Baby Is Sick?

While there’s good evidence that the composition of your breastmilk changes in response to your baby’s illness, this isn’t something that can be seen with the naked eye. You may have heard rumors or seen pictures on the internet, but there’s no evidence that your breastmilk changes color when your baby is sick, explains Mykale Elbe, DNP, APRN, FNP-BC, director of the MSN Nurse Practitioner Program at Maryville University. “I have not seen the color of the milk change in response to [illness],” Dr. Elbe notes.

Still, breastmilk does change color at times, not related to illness. The color of your breastmilk may change in response to a medication you're taking, says Dr. Poinsett. It may look pink or red if there is any blood in your milk, such as when your nipples are cracked, she adds. Jiha explains that breastmilk can change color in response to something you’ve eaten. For example, if you eat carrots, beets, or lots of greens, your milk might be tinted red or green.

Benefits of Nursing Your Baby When They Are Sick

There's a lot of evidence that breastfeeding your baby can help them move through their illness with a little more ease and ensure that they are protected from more serious outcomes. “Breastmilk contains a host of antibodies and other protective factors,” Dr. Poinsett says. “By continuing to nurse your baby when they are sick, you are providing substances that can help the baby fight off an infection.”

First of all, as the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) notes, breastfed babies are less likely to get sick in the first place. If your baby does get sick, they are more likely to have a milder case and recover sooner. Studies have found that breastmilk is protective against many common respiratory and ear infections.

As the CDC notes, breastmilk is one of the best antidotes to a GI infection, such as diarrhea or vomiting. Breastmilk is protective against getting these diseases in the first place, but when your baby is experiencing a nasty tummy bug, your breastmilk is great for rehydrating. Many parents will say that breastmilk is the only thing their babies can keep down.

Tips for Nursing a Sick Baby

When babies aren’t feeling well, they can be fussy at the breast, and nursing can be more difficult. Here are some experts tips for making things a little easier:

  • If your baby is stuffed up, they won’t feed as well, says Dr. Poinsett. She advises suctioning your baby’s nose with a bulb syringe prior to feeding; you can also apply saline drops to loosen up secretions before you suction their nose.
  • Dr. Elbe recommends trying to stay as calm as possible during feeds. “When [parents] are stressed, infants can sense that and can become fussy and stiffer making it harder for an infant to latch,” she says.
  • Sometimes ill babies can’t breastfeed for as long as they usually do, and your baby may respond better to shorter, more frequent feeds, Dr. Poinsett advises.
  • Trying nursing while lying down instead of sitting up, says Jiha. “Mom and baby will be more relaxed as a result,” she suggests.
  • Other babies may benefit from more upright feedings, especially if they are stuffed up, says Dr. Poinsett.

A Word From Verywell

Breastfeeding your baby while they are sick is a wonderful way to soothe and protect them. It’s pretty amazing to consider the ways that breastmilk adapts to protect your baby. Still, even breastfed babies can get seriously ill at times.

That’s why it’s important to be in touch with your baby’s pediatrician when they are sick, and be sure to follow up if your baby shows any signs of serious illness, including feeding difficulties, fever (especially in a baby under 2 months), and lethargy.

9 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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