Breastfeeding When Sick


Between the back-to-school bustle & upcoming holidays at some point the unavoidable dread of seasonal illness will strike. Many of the medications that are commonly seen on drug store shelves which target symptoms of seasonal illness are off limits to a breastfeeding Mom, unfortunately the actual illness is not. Having the responsibility of producing your infant’s primary source of nutrition while not feeling your best along with the worry of getting your infant sick can be understandably overwhelming and add to the stress of fighting through the seasonal crud.


When fighting sickness of any sort many Moms question if they should continue breastfeeding. The thought process for this is close contact with their infant would put them at increased risk for contracting contagious illnesses. While limiting close contact with those who are currently sick is generally a good rule…it is a little different when looking at the breastfed mother & infant dynamic. Breastfeeding frequently is actually RECOMMENDED to help support the immune system. Breastmilk contains stem cells, white blood cells, protective enzymes, & powerful antibodies that fight infection. When an infant goes to breast a small amount of saliva is pulled back into the nipple and into the milk ducts. During this process a breastfeeding Mom’s body receives the signal that exposure to infection is present and milk composition begins to change rapidly. Any infectious particles a Mom or her infant are exposed to (Mom’s with school aged children bringing home all of the contagious rhinoviruses, enteroviruses, hand foot mouth, etc.) will trigger the cascade & signal the release of cell specific antibodies to fight that particular infection.


The earliest form of breastmilk, Colostrum, is packed with Leukocytes. If Mom & baby are healthy the number of Leukocytes will continually decrease until infection appears and triggers the spike in Leukocytes again. These specialized cells serve an important role in fighting pathogens by either gobbling them up or producing antibodies. Mom’s who are exclusively pumping may be wondering how this works when infant isn’t feeding directly at breast. Skin to skin contact with your infant or any exchange of bodily fluids (it sounds gross but how many times has your infant accidently drooled on you? I’ll be the first to admit that I am the proud Aunt who never learned her lesson & has now had 2 generations of nephews who have drooled right in her open mouth while playing airplane, so I know how easily it happens LOL. Or how often have you given a quick lick to your finger to wipe around a messy mouth which typically takes more than one pass? It’s that simple of an exchange!) elicits the same response to your milk making powers. This response can even be visualized by comparing expressed breastmilk throughout the period of illness & observing color changes that are present in the expressed milk. If you are freezing any milk during a period of infection, I recommend labeling the bag of expressed milk with the infection or symptoms that are present at that time. In the future should you encounter the same symptoms again it can be helpful to utilize expressed milk which contains antibodies for that particular set of symptoms.


One of the biggest concerns for a breastfeeding Mom during times of illness is if a decrease in milk supply is seen. Experiencing a drop in supply during these periods is normal and is primarily due to increased stress on the body while fighting infection. As long as milk supply is supported by frequent milk removal throughout the duration of the illness, it generally returns to normal once infection is no longer present. Your infant may feed more frequently because of the temporary supply decrease. Keep in mind each feed at breast is giving your infant another beneficial burst of pathogen fighting Leukocytes, helping to support the continuous composition changes in your milk, & positively supporting supply by milk removal. Embrace the extra cuddles, side lying feeds, & naps. Your breastmilk is your infant’s best medicine!

-Brittany, RN, CLC, IBCLC

Innate Health Lactation Services

Brittany is also an RN with 17 years of clinical experience with over half of those years in postpartum care, NICU and pediatric ICU care.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here