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Is It Safe to Breastfeed When You're Sick?

Question:

Is it safe to breastfeed when I'm sick?

Answer:

Believe it or not, people are most contagious before they even know they're sick. So 12 to 24 hours before showing any symptoms, a mother has already exposed her baby to whatever bug or virus she's contracted. Fortunately, the mother also forms antibodies to her illness in four to five days, which she passes to her baby via the breast milk. Since most viruses have an incubation period of five to seven days, the mother passes her baby the antibody protection before he can come down with anything.

I tell moms that as long as they're physically able, they may continue to nurse while they're ill. The only reasons a sick mother shouldn't breastfeed are if she feels too lousy to do it or if she's taking a medication that isn't safe for the baby. If your physician prescribes a drug that's not safe to take while breastfeeding, find out if it's essential, or ask for an alternative. Also consult your doctor before you take any over-the-counter medication.

The one exception to all of this is if your child is younger than 3 weeks old. Babies are especially vulnerable to infection in the first few days of life. For instance, a mother who is ill with the flu when she gives birth is usually kept away from her baby until she's no longer contagious, or she may be required to wear a gown, gloves, and a mask when she holds the child. Breastfeeding is not advised during this time.

Catherine Dundon, MD, is an associate clinical professor of pediatrics at Vanderbilt University Children's Hospital and a practicing physician in Goodlettsville, Tennessee.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.