Breastfeeding During Illness
Updated: Jun 11
We know human milk contains antibodies to help protect our babies from infection. Many doctors and health organizations, including The World Health Organization, clearly state that a mother should not be separated from her baby at times in which she is ill under an infectious disease because the antibodies are transferred directly to her child from her breast milk. (4)
“(...)the composition of your breast milk changes when your baby is ill. If you’re exposed to a bacterial or viral infection, your body makes antibodies to combat it; these are then transferred to your baby through your milk.” (2)
In most cases, when you are sick from a viral or bacterial infection, you should continue breastfeeding your child normally if you are able to. Again, mother’s milk helps to protect her baby from infectious disease. By the time you discover you have been exposed to an infection, your breastfed baby has most likely been infected as well and is already receiving the necessary antibodies to combat the illness thanks to your breast milk. It takes a breastfeeding mother’s body approximately twenty minutes to start producing the particular antibodies that will protect her child through her milk against the specific infectious agents that the baby is exposed to (1). If you are unable to breastfeed, you can pump and feed expressed breast milk to your baby with a syringe, spoon, cup or bottle.
“Furthermore, breastfeeding, the act of breastfeeding beyond breastmilk, also protects the baby. The very act of breastfeeding decreases stress, decreases cortisol levels in the baby, decreases crying (and thus stress) and the physical contact, the skin to skin contact during breastfeeding has been shown to improve the immune response of the baby and lowers the inflammatory response in the baby which is what frequently causes the damage that occurs during infections.” -Dr. Jack Newman (3)
When your child is not feeling well, be prepared to breastfeed more often than usual. Your baby will not only need the extra comfort from your touch and security of your breast, but your milk will also contain those antibodies and magical milk components to protect him and help his immune system fight off the illness. Patience is key during these times in which your child may seem overly attached to you. Remember that your amazing body is making his natural medicine which cannot be replicated. You will feel more at ease knowing that you are able to comfort your child through breastfeeding and will certainly enjoy the extra cuddles as well. If and when you need a moment to yourself or if you feel “touched out”, be sure to have your partner or someone close by to help you in caring for your sick baby.
“Breastfeeding a sick baby gives her a great chance of a speedy recovery, as well as helping to comfort her. Your breast milk contains antibodies, white blood cells, stem cells and protective enzymes that fight infections and may help with healing.” (2)
UNICEF also states that mothers can continue to safely breastfeed their children during respiratory viruses due to the continued benefits. As always, practicing healthy hygiene is necessary. UNICEF emphasizes the importance of continuing to: wash your hands, cover your mouth when sneezing and coughing, keep away from those with cold or flu-like symptoms, clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces, and seek medical advice if you or your child have a fever, cough or difficulty breathing. (5)
“Considering the benefits of breastfeeding and the insignificant role of breastmilk in the transmission of other respiratory viruses, the mother can continue breastfeeding, while applying all the necessary precautions.” (5)
I understand that it can be especially difficult to find the strength to breastfeed your child if you are unwell. Always be sure to care for yourself first and let your partner or someone else help you care for your baby whenever necessary. You may certainly use expressed breastmilk that you have previously stored prior to becoming ill, but keep in mind the most recent milk will contain the appropriate antibodies and protection from your infection. If your baby is exclusively breastfed, you can try feeding with a syringe, cup or spoon rather than bottle-feeding to help avoid complications when returning to breastfeeding.
There are rare occasions in which a mother should not continue breastfeeding her child during illness. However, during “common” illnesses caused by a bacterial or viral infection such as a cold or flu, breastfeeding may be the best thing you can do for your baby. Always contact a reliable source such as a breastfeeding consultant or an appropriate medical professional for individualized care and advice.
“Amazing Milk, Best For Everyone.” La Leche League GB, 23 June 2019, www.laleche.org.uk/amazing-milk/.
Medela AG. “Breastfeeding While You or Your Baby Are Sick.” Medela, Medela AG, 24 Oct. 2017, www.medela.com/breastfeeding/mums-journey/breastfeeding-while-sick.
Newman, Jack. Breastfeeding: Empowering Parents. Independently Published, 2018.
“Pregnancy, Childbirth, Breastfeeding and COVID-19.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, 31 Mar. 2020, www.who.int/reproductivehealth/publications/emergencies/COVID-19-pregnancy-ipc-breastfeeding-infographics/en/.
Unicef. “Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19): What Parents Should Know.” UNICEF, 6 Mar. 2020, www.unicef.org/stories/novel-coronavirus-outbreak-what-parents-should-know.