Is It Safe to Breastfeed When You're Sick?

Do you have the common cold, seasonal influenza, or the coronavirus (COVID-19)? Find out whether it's safe to breastfeed, with tips on preventing the spread of illness to your baby.

The benefits of breastfeeding are widespread, ranging from reduced risk of gastrointestinal issues to improved cognitive development. But whether you're a full-time or part-time breastfeeding mother, you may wonder whether it's safe to nurse with an illness. Here's what you need to know about breastfeeding if you have a cold, seasonal influenza, or the coronavirus.

Can I Breastfeed with a Cold or Flu?

Believe it or not, people are most contagious before they even know they're sick with a cold or flu, says Catherine Dundon, M.D., an associate clinical professor of pediatrics at Vanderbilt University Children's Hospital and a practicing physician in Goodlettsville, Tennessee. 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.

Dr. Dundon tells moms that as long as they're physically able, they may continue to nurse while they're ill with a cold or the flu. 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.

Breastfeeding Mother Looking At Baby on Couch
Tomsickova Tatyana/Shutterstock

Is Breastfeeding Safe If You Have the Coronavirus?

No scientific studies have been conducted on the coronavirus (COVID-19) and breast milk. However, "there have not been any case reports of COVID-19 being passed from mother to baby via breastfeeding," says Jessica Madden, M.D., medical director of Aeroflow Breastpumps. "The ​CDC recommends​ that mothers with confirmed or suspected coronavirus continue to provide breast milk to their babies."

Still, mothers can pass the coronavirus to infants through droplets from coughing and sneezing. These droplets can get into baby's eyes, nose, or mouth and cause infection. COVID-19 usually doesn't cause severe complications for infants, although at least one infant has died of the disease. Follow the precautions outlined below to keep your little one safe.

How to Protect Your Baby

To prevent transmitting your illness to your baby, breastfeeding mothers should take the following precautions:

  • Before breastfeeding, wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • If you're coughing or sneezing, wear a face mask while nursing to contain droplets. This is especially important if you have the coronavirus or the flu.
  • Wash your hands before pumping, and thoroughly clean pump and bottle parts with washed hands after every use.
  • Consider having another person feed expressed milk to the baby, suggests Kristen Kelley, an Infection Preventionist with Medela. When fed by a healthy caregiver, an infant has lower odds of contracting an illness.

Sick mothers should also ask their doctors before breastfeeding a child 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 or COVID-19 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, says Dr. Dundon.

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