When moms are sick, is it safe for them to breastfeed?
The good news is that even if you are a nursing mom who becomes sick, breastfeeding is very safe AND beneficial for babies. With all viral illnesses, your baby will have been exposed to the virus by the time you notice symptoms. The best thing you can do in ordinary times (pre-COVID) is to continue to breastfeed if you feel up to it. In fact, your breast milk contains illness-specific antibodies that offer protection to your baby. During COVID-living, things are a bit more complicated as we want to prevent the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus to baby.
At this point we know SARS-CoV-2 has not been found in breast milk, so continuing to offer breast milk is important as long as it can be done safely. Unfortunately, there is a very real potential for a mother with COVID to transmit the virus to her baby through respiratory droplets (i.e. via sneezing, coughing, talking, breathing). The CDC doesn’t make firm recommendations about feeding if it is suspected or confirmed that a breastfeeding mother has COVID. Instead, they recommend that feeding practices be decided by mother (and family) in conjunction with mother’s healthcare providers.
When mothers with COVID continue to feed at the breast, these are precautions that should be taken:
- Wash hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer prior to holding your baby
- Wear a mask while feeding baby
- Try to limit face to face contact with infant
If a COVID positive nursing mother plans to feed with expressed breast milk, she should mask and wash hands prior to handling the breast pump and its parts. Additionally, breast pump parts should be cleaned with warm soapy water. To minimize risk of transmission of COVID to the baby, consider a healthy caregiver bottle-feeding baby with the expressed/pumped milk.
For bacterial infections like mastitis (breast infection), food poisoning and urinary tract infections, there is no risk of transmitting the bacteria to the baby and breast feeding should continue as long as moms are feeling well enough to do so.
With any illness a breast feeding mom will need additional fluid intake to help maintain her hydration and milk supply so she needs to drink regularly and before she’s even thirsty! It is common for breast milk supply to drop when a woman is sick. If this occurs, we can help suggest nutrition or supplements to increase supply. Additionally, we work with several lactation consultants who are invaluable for all things breast feeding.
There are a few definitive circumstances in which mothers should not breast feed—mothers with HIV, mothers infected with human T-cell lymphotropic virus I or II, mothers with a bacterial illness called Brucellosis and mothers with active herpes lesions on their nipples or breast. Moms with Hepatitis B or C who have cracked/bleeding nipples should likely suspend breast feeding until nipples are healed. https://www.cdc.gov/breastfeeding/breastfeeding-special-circumstances/maternal-or-infant-illnesses/hepatitis.html