Any parent knows when their kiddo is sick, chances are it’s just a matter of time before they get the bug too thanks to all the nose wiping, cough covering and cleaning up of messes. In fact, according to a study in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, parents are 28% more likely to get sick than those without children. There’s not much to be done about it, except to follow common hygienic practices like washing hands often and covering sneezes and coughs.
When your child is sick, you want to be close by to comfort them and take care of them, nursing them back to health. If you’re currently breastfeeding, there’s no truer statement. But what is a breastfeeding mom to do, however, when she’s the one who falls sick, especially with something like the seasonal flu?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the flu cannot be passed to an infant through breast milk so sick moms should continue to breastfeed, as milk contains antibodies and other immunological boosters for their baby.
Vicki Gettel, a registered nurse and lactation consultant on the nursing staff at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Allen, agrees.
“Breastfeeding helps to keep baby safe from many diseases, including respiratory illnesses,” she says. “Because there is no flu vaccine available for babies under the age of 6 months, the antibodies found in mother’s milk play an important role in lowering baby’s risk.”
The flu is mainly spread through droplets that are released while sneezing or coughing, so as long as you are washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before interacting with baby, as well as practicing good cough etiquette (coughing or sneezing into a tissue or arm, rather than the hands), you should be able to get through this illness without spreading it to baby, or others in your household. You may also feel more comfortable nursing while wearing a face mask, although not required.
“All members of the household should be following these same practices and should get the flu vaccine, if able to,” Gettel adds. “Contact with other sick people should also be avoided.”
If you feel that you are too ill to breastfeed, you can still pump regularly and have a healthy family member or caregiver bottle-feed your baby until you’re feeling better. Additionally, Gettel says all pump pieces should be cleaned and sanitized after each use. The CDC provides a helpful resource on how to properly clean and sanitize your breast pump.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists explains that it’s important for women to receive a flu vaccine during pregnancy, as studies have shown newborns receive neonatal protection from maternal vaccinations due to transplacental antibodies. Additionally, newborns whose mothers received the flu vaccine are less likely to be hospitalized if they do come down with the virus.
The flu can make even the toughest mom miserable, so self-care is important. Both illnesses and some medications can contribute to a decline in milk productivity, so mothers should keep a close eye on their production, drink plenty of water and get lots of rest.
“A mother should check with a lactation consultant or her pediatric provider for guidelines before taking products to alleviate flu-like symptoms,” Gettel recommends. “Medications with pseudoephedrine, a common decongestant, may decrease milk supply. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s Drugs and Lactation Database LactMed®, oseltamivir (Tamiflu) is poorly excreted in breast milk, so it may be taken by the breastfeeding mother without harm to a nursing baby.”
If you find yourself sick with the flu during delivery, Gettel says direct breastfeeding may be interrupted if you remain hospitalized with the flu following delivery. The CDC recommends that under these circumstances, the baby should not share the same room as the mother.
During this temporary separation, you will continue to pump, and your breastmilk will be fed to your baby by a caregiver. Once you are free of fever for more than 24 hours and have control over secretions, direct breastfeeding and mother-baby bonding can continue.
While you may have some concern regarding if it’s safe to continue to breastfeed while sick, regardless of if it’s with the flu, a cold or something else, breastfeeding can provide healthy antibodies to your baby while continuing to provide nutrition, bonding and support. If you are still unsure, you can provide your baby with pumped breast milk until you’re feeling better, and follow good hygiene practices while handling baby or being around baby.