What to Do When a Breastfeeding Mother Gets Sick

by - June 01, 2018

What to Do When a Breastfeeding Mother Gets Sick


As a mother, you always need to be at your best as much as possible in order to care for your family. When you're breastfeeding, the motivation to stay healthy for the sake of your baby is much more pertinent. 

However, at some point in your breastfeeding journey, it's not impossible to fall ill—whether it's just a simple cold or something more severe. And when a breastfeeding mother gets sick, one question plagues us: Should I continue breastfeeding my baby? 

The simple answer is, it depends. Studies have shown that very few illnesses require a lactating mom to stop. However, considerations must be taken into account when medications are involved.

So what should breastfeeding mothers do when you get sick? Here are tips on how to manage your sickness while you're breastfeeding, and to determine whether it's safe to breastfeed while on medication.

What to Do When a Breastfeeding Mother Gets Sick


1. Consult a specialist doctor AND a lactation consultant

From my experience, it always frustrates me whenever a doctor says I should stop breastfeeding because I am sick or that there are no alternative medications that are safe for lactating moms. To be fair to other doctors and specialists, they do have the discretion to take the safest route and advise you to temporarily stop breastfeeding. Which is why it's recommended to consult a Lactation Consultant, in addition to your doctor.

A Lactation Consultant is a pediatrician who, as the term suggests, is an expert on lactation. They are  more well-versed and updated on medications and treatment plans that are relatively safe for breastfeeding moms. They can also provide tips on how to manage possible health concerns that can affect your baby in relation to your sickness.


2. Double-check if your medications are safe for breastfeeding

While MIMS has always been the go-to reference for drug information, it's actually not the best one if you're checking whether a particular medication is safe for lactating moms. Most drug manufacturers will indicate as a caveat that not enough studies were done to confirm a drug's safety for pregnancy and lactation.

How to check if a medication is safe for breastfeeding moms
Lactation Consultants are the best source of information whether the medication your doctor gave you is safe for breastfeeding moms. If you still want to make sure and double-check, you can use the following online medical resources, all of which were provided by my Lactation Consultant:

  • E-Lactancia - Best resource for non-medical moms and the quickest, most convenient platform to check a drug's compatibility for breastfeeding. You only need to type in the generic name of the drug, and the website will provide you with information whether the medication is "low risk" (compatible for breastfeeding) or otherwise.
  • LactMed (TOXNET) - More suited for moms who are well-acquainted with medical terms. The website provides you with medical case studies and research on the toxicity level of a medication, so you need to read between the lines whether it's safe for breastfeeding or not.

For more information on medication and breastmilk, read the International Breastfeeding Centre's article here.



3. Take necessary precautions to safeguard your baby

Whether you can breastfeed or not, it's advisable to take necessary precautions to safeguard your baby from being infected. Be sure to also ask your doctor the mode of transmission of your sickness: direct or indirect contact?

Here are other tips to prevent the spread of disease and germs around your house:

  • Wash your hands properly with soap and water before holding your baby, and before and after eating and using the comfort room
  • Use hand sanitizer in addition to proper hand washing
  • Wear a disposable face mask whenever possible
  • Cover your mouth and nose whenever you sneeze or cough, and wash your hands afterwards
  • Dispose tissues with phlegm and your saliva properly in a trash can, and wash your hands afterwards
  • In the case of direct contact transmission (for example, skin lesions), be sure to cover the area when you're breastfeeding or holding your baby


4. Maintain your milk supply

It's not uncommon for a mother's milk supply to diminish slightly during sickness. It may be due to the medications you're taking, or simply due to the stress you're feeling while sick.

If you can breastfeed, be sure to check if you can breastfeed directly (i.e., direct latch) or indirectly (i.e., from a cup or bottle). Breastfeed on demand to boost your milk supply, or pump on a schedule (every 2 to 4 hours).

If you can't breastfeed, then you need to pump and dump on a schedule too to maintain your milk supply. Be also sure to watch out for signs of mastitis, an expected occurrence during abrupt temporary weaning.



Why It's Perfectly Okay to Breastfeed When a Mother Is Sick

Both bacterial and viral infections have an incubation period. That is, the time between a person is exposed to the infection and the time the first symptoms appear. In the case of viral infections, a person is considered most contagious before he/she even feels sick. By the time a breastfeeding mother realizes she is sick, your baby have already been exposed to the bacteria or virus.

Dr. Jack Newman, a lauded Lactation Consultant, wrote a scientific paper back in 1995 that explains how breastmilk can actually protect infants from infection. The same information still rings true and relevant today. When a lactating mother is sick and continues to breastfeed, you are protect your baby from getting sick by providing antibodies to your baby.

Contrary to popular (and false) belief, it is rare for bacteria and viruses to be transmitted through a mother's breastmilk to her baby. A baby may get sick, though, if the infection is transmitted by its respective mode of transmission—for example, from droplets, direct contact to the skin or fluids, air contaminants, food, water, etc.

Of course, it's always best to factor in the kind of sickness you have and the medications and treatment plan for your illness. 

For more information on maternal illness and breastfeeding, read Dr. Jack Newman's paper here.

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