January is a time of bright beginnings – a new year, a new semester for students, and for Lompoc’s newest members, the joyful early stages of infancy.
The first month of the year is also a time of many common illnesses including colds, gastrointestinal viruses, and influenza. Cold and flu season can bring many questions for breastfeeding mothers about the best ways to keep their infants healthy, as well as the safety of breastfeeding during times of illness.
The great news is that not only is breastfeeding protective against many childhood illnesses, in most cases it is also recommended to continue even when the mother becomes sick.
When a mother is exposed to illness, her body begins producing antibodies which help the immune system fight the illness and return the mother to health. Antibodies for the specific bacteria or virus to which the mother is exposed are also passed into the breast milk, where they aid the infant’s immature immune system.
By the time a mother becomes ill, it is likely she and her infant have both been exposed to the pathogen. Because of that, separating mom and baby after illness emerges will most likely not prevent the infant from becoming infected.
Breastfeeding can help an infant avoid becoming sick or may help a sick infant recover from illness more quickly. It also provides an optimal source of nutrition and hydration so important for a baby who is under the weather. Interesting new research also indicates that if an infant is exposed to an illness which the mother has not been exposed to, such as while at daycare, the infant’s saliva may cause receptors in the mother’s breast to start producing antibodies for that illness to help her infant fight the infection. In this way, breastfeeding is a marvelous two-way communication between the mother and the infant’s immune systems.
When an illness requires medication, a mother may wonder what is safe to take, since many medications may pass into the breast milk in small amounts and could have potential effects on the breastfeeding infant. General principles to keep in mind include looking for a medication that treats only the specific symptoms experienced and is short-acting and not long-acting or extended release. It’s also a good idea to keep in mind that some medications may cause a reduction in milk supply, such as pseudoephedrine, and should be avoided if possible.
A doctor or pharmacist should be consulted if a mother is not sure about the safety of the medication or its effects on lactation. Additionally, the “Infant Risk Hotline” through Texas Tech University and the “Mother to Baby Hotline” at the University of San Diego are free resources where mothers can call and talk to experts about specific medications and their use during breastfeeding. Links and phone numbers to these hotlines are provided below.
Good self-care for the mother is very important when breastfeeding during an illness. Mothers should ask for support and try to get as much rest as possible. It’s important to have good nutrition and to keep very well hydrated. Comfort measures such as steam and nasal spray for congestion, hot tea, and warm baths may also help. It is common to notice a temporary drop in milk supply during an illness, however feeding on demand more frequently should keep baby well fed and a mother’s supply will likely rebound as she recovers.
Sick infants may benefit from nursing for shorter lengths of time more frequently, especially when experiencing nasal congestion or gastrointestinal illness.
Mothers can have peace of mind knowing that breastfeeding provides adequate nutrition as well as much needed comfort when their infants are sick.
- Infant Risk Hotline. Or call weekdays at 1-806-352-2519.
- Mother to Baby Hotline. You can call toll-free at 866-626-6847.
- CDC breastfeeding and Influenza
- Breastfeeding When Mom is Sick — Kellymom website.