How Your Breastmilk Changes During Illness

Aug 22, 2022

The Power of Breast Milk: What to do if mama or baby is under the weather?

If you are a new mama, you may be concerned about what to do when you or your baby is exposed to a

cold, flu, or virus. One particular question might involve breastfeeding and whether or not you should

continue to nurse or stop until the illness passes. Babies are so small and vulnerable so, of course, every

mama wants to do what she can to protect her little one! Rule number one for a breastfeeding mom?

Keep nursing!!

As a Mom of 3, and a licensed speech pathologist/feeding specialist, I have personally nursed my

newborns while I had the flu as well as COVID, and food poisoning, and I’m grateful to say that each time,

my babies were able to avoid getting sick as I got back on my feet and returned to full health.

Because nursing means close contact with the baby, your little one will likely already be exposed by the

time you realize you are unwell. Thankfully, however, ingesting mama’s breast milk helps to reduce the

chances of the baby becoming unwell and often reduces the severity of symptoms in babies IF they end

up having the illness. How is this possible you might ask? Because breastmilk is phenomenal, that’s why!

Among other important and valuable ingredients/contents (proteins, vitamins and minerals, hormones,

etc.), breast milk contains antibodies that fight infection. This starts with our first milk, colostrum, and

continues into our mature milk as our babies grow. Amazingly, our breast milk can protect our babies from

illnesses we experience while breastfeeding because the antibodies change based on our environment(s)

and our exposures. When we are sick, our bodies make antibodies to help us fight that specific

illness/virus and these antibodies are passed to the baby via breast milk. Wildly enough, our antibodies

can even protect our babies from illnesses we’ve had in the past (prior to breastfeeding!) and research

supports that breastfeeding might protect our children against infections even after the breastfeeding

relationship has ended. How incredible!

In addition to our breast milk changing based on our illness, it also changes its composition to respond to

our baby’s needs. Research supports that this happens as a result of baby’s saliva mixing with the breast

milk which results in a tailoring of antibodies to meet baby’s needs. Mamas may even notice that the

appearance and composition of her breast milk changes at times of illness because of the

nutrient/antibody compositions required for the baby at different times (in addition to changing as a result

of other variables such as the time of day of the feed, the timing between feeds, as well as during times of

baby’s growth).

Some additional tips for helping “sick” breastfeeding mamas:

  • REST
  • Drink plenty of fluids, particularly if feverish or losing a lot of fluids
  • Be sure to continue with supplements such as zinc, vitamin C, vitamin D, possibly garlic
  • Try to avoid OTC meds
  • Avoid suddenly discontinuing breastfeeding so you don’t risk additional discomfort due to clogged ducts, etc
  • Wash your hands often
  • Do your best to not breathe/cough/sneeze directly on baby while nursing

What should we do if baby is under the weather?

Unfortunately, even the most careful of mamas end up with babies who catch colds and viruses. In most

cases, these are short, albeit frustrating and inconvenient, periods of time where we do the best we can

to take care of our little ones. When babies start acting differently because it seems they are experiencing

some type of cold/virus/illness, it can be particularly tough since babies are unable to communicate

exactly what’s going on. Thankfully, breastfeeding can help them to feel safe, secure, comforted, and

loved, while also providing them antibodies, hydration, and nutrition all at once. Depending on the illness,

a baby may want to nurse more (resulting in an increased milk supply) – or nurse less and sleep more (in

which case mom may need to pump to avoid engorgement and maintain supply).

Some additional tips for helping “sick” babies

  • Saline spray or drops combined with “snot sucker” / bulb syringe if necessary
  • Use a humidifier or snuggle up with baby in a hot shower so he/she can breathe in steam
  • If baby is particularly stuffy, nursing in an upright position may be more effective
  • Gentle supplements (zinc, vitamin C, vitamin D) and teas like chamomile through breast

milk; herbs such as garlic can be helpful via breast milk as well.

  • Consider a Baltic amber ankle bracelet
  • Monitor wet diapers during illness, particularly if the child has a fever, vomiting, or

changes in hydration levels

  • Call your child’s doctor when necessary

Bottom line? Breast milk is powerful!

While colds, viruses, and illnesses can be frustrating for both mamas and babies, continuing to

breastfeed is a huge way for moms to provide increased immunity (and comfort!) to our babies. As a Mom

of 3, I have personally nursed my newborns while I had the flu as well as COVID, and food poisioning,

and I’m grateful to say that each time, my babies were able to avoid getting sick as I got back on my feet

and returned to full health. Generally, in times like this, I recommend mamas find a comfortable place to

remain so that the priorities can be to rest and nurse as often as possible so that the miracle of breastmilk

can do its magical work! Happy healing!

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