Getting sick as a breastfeeding parent can be stressful. You might wonder – should I keep breastfeeding when I’m sick? Is there a way to avoid a drop in milk supply when I’m sick? How can I increase my milk supply after being sick? Here’s what you need to know.
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Should I keep breastfeeding when I’m sick?
In almost all cases when you’re sick, yes, you should keep breastfeeding your baby. This is true whether you’re exclusively pumping or nurse at times.
There are a few exceptions – in the United States, the CDC recommends that:
- Parents with HIV, Human T-cell leukemia virus type 1 (HTLV-1), or Ebola should not nurse or feed their babies expressed breast milk at all
- People with untreated brucellosis (a bacterial infection transmitted through animals) or an active herpes simples virus (HSV) infection with a lesion on the breast should not nurse their babies or feed expressed breast milk until the issue is resolved
- Parents with untreated, active tuberculosis or chicken pox should not nurse but CAN feed their babies expressed breast milk
As of August 2021, these are the only known contraindications for breastfeeding when you are ill. You can check here to see the current recommendations.
Will my breast milk make my baby sick?
In most cases, your baby would already have been exposed to your illness before you started showing symptoms. Therefore, refraining from giving baby your milk likely won’t help. If you are unsure, ask your pediatrician.
Additionally, the antibodies in your breast milk can help PROTECT your baby from your illness. From “How Breast Milk Protects Newborns” by Dr. Jack Newman:
First, the collection of antibodies transmitted to an infant is highly targeted against pathogens in that child’s immediate surroundings. The mother synthesizes antibodies when she ingests, inhales or otherwise comes in contact with a disease-causing agent… Because the mother makes antibodies only to pathogens in her environment, the baby receives the protection it most needs-against the infectious agents it is most likely to encounter in the first weeks of life.
Of course, it’s a good idea idea to do normal illness-prevention routines such as frequently washing hands, covering your mouth while you cough and sneeze, etc.
(Note: If for whatever reason your doctor instructs you not feed your baby your milk while you’re sick, keep pumping to maintain your milk supply and discard the milk. Then you’ll be able to start breastfeeding again when you get the okay from your doctor.)
What should I do while I’m sick to maintain your milk supply?
Some people have noticed that their milk supply drops when they get sick.
Here are a few things you can do to try to prevent this and maintain your supply while you’re ill.
1. Stick to your pumping schedule as much as possible in order to protect your supply long-term.
It’s hard when you’re sick and need to rest and have a baby to take care of, so do the best you can.
If you’re hospitalized and would like to continue breastfeeding, the hospital should be able to provide you with a hospital-grade pump like this one and store your milk for you.
2. Avoid medications that affect milk supply.
Some medications, like pseudoephedrine for congestion (found in Sudafed), can reduce milk supply. Most medications are fine for breastfeeding parents (or there is an acceptable substitute), so just check before you take something.
(Obviously, if there aren’t alternatives, then take what you need to take for your health.)
You can use the Mommy Meds app or call the InfantRisk Center to get evidence-based information on safety of different medications while breastfeeding.
3. Stay hydrated.
You don’t need to drink a ton of extra fluid, just make sure you drink about as much as you normally would. The goal is to avoid dehydration (rather than get super hydrated).
4. Get as much rest as possible.
This is challenging when you have a baby to take care of, but if there are people you can ask for help (partner, family, friends), do it!
Let whatever doesn’t need to be done immediately go – you’re in survival mode.
5. Keep pumping even if your baby doesn’t want to eat.
If your baby is sick and not taking as much milk, keep pumping on your normal schedule so that you don’t lose supply even if you don’t need the milk right now. Your baby’s appetite will be back in a few days, and you want to make sure you’ll still have enough milk for them then.
(If you’re a nursing parent and your baby is not nursing as much, it’s a good idea to pump to keep your supply up until he feels better.)
How can I increase milk supply after being sick?
I did an unscientific instagram poll to see how many people were able to recover their supply after getting sick:
Of the people that responded, 53% said their supply recovered on its own, 35% said they had to work for it, and 12% were not able to recover their supply.
If you want to try to get your supply back to where it was, here are some things you can try.
1. Get back on your pumping schedule and stick to it as much as possible
Consistently removing milk is the most important thing that you can do to maintain and increase your milk supply. If you weren’t able to keep pumping on your normal schedule before, go back to it now.
It may take a few days to a few weeks to see an increase, but the consistency should help.
2. Do breast compressions
Breast compressions push the milk out of your milk ducts, helping you get as much milk as possible out of your pumping sessions.
To do them, you want to massage your breasts while you pump (basically, just move your hands around and squeeze).
3. Eat oatmeal/lactation cookies/brownies/etc.
A lot of people find that they are able to pump an extra ounce or two on the days that they eat oatmeal for breakfast. (I’m one of them!) It’s a “can’t hurt/might help” thing that anyone can try.
If, like me, you don’t really like oatmeal, you can eat lactation cookies, brownies, a smoothie, or something else that contains it.
If you’re not up to making lactation cookies yourself, there are also tons of options you can buy already made.
(Also, make sure you’re getting enough calories in general.)
4. Power pumping
Power pumping is meant to mimic cluster feeding, where a baby is on and off the breast for an hour or more.
With power pumping, you pump for 20 minutes or so, and then on and off every 10 minutes for an hour.
More info on power pumping here.
5. Consider galactagogues like nursing teas, fenugreek, and blessed thistle
If you’ve tried the above tactics and are not seeing an increase, there are some herbs like fenugreek and blessed thistle that some people find helpful. They are available both in capsule form and in teas.
Have you had to breastfeed through an illness? How did you increase milk supply after being sick? Tell us your experience in the comments!References
- Bonyata, Kelly, IBCLC. “Should breastfeeding continue when mom is sick?” https://kellymom.com/bf/can-i-breastfeed/illness-surgery/mom-illness/
- CDC. “Brucellosis.” https://www.cdc.gov/brucellosis/transmission/index.html
- CDC. “Contraindications to Breastfeeding or Feeding Expressed Breast Milk to Infants.” https://www.cdc.gov/breastfeeding/breastfeeding-special-circumstances/Contraindications-to-breastfeeding.html
- CDC. “Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).” https://www.cdc.gov/breastfeeding/breastfeeding-special-circumstances/maternal-or-infant-illnesses/hiv.html
- Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center. “Human T-cell leukemia virus type 1.” https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/9645/human-t-cell-leukemia-virus-type-1
- Medela. “Breastfeeding With A Cold Or Flu.” https://www.medelabreastfeedingus.com/article/217/breastfeeding-with-a-cold-or-flu
- Newman, Jack. “How Breast Milk Protects Newborns.” https://kellymom.com/pregnancy/bf-prep/how_breastmilk_protects_newborns/