Breastfeeding Through Colds and Flu

The season of sneezes and sniffles is upon us, and many moms and babies are likely to catch colds or the flu. Evidence shows that breastfed babies have considerable protection from such illnesses, and when they do become ill, relief can come directly from mother’s milk.

Colostrum, the early milk a breastfed newborn receives for a few days after birth, contains highly concentrated antibodies that protect against many diseases. Mature milk continues to protect infants from many diseases and strengthens the immune system. Babies who are not breastfed have a higher risk of contracting bacterial infections, such as E. coli and salmonella; viral infections, such as influenza and rotavirus; as well as parasites.

One of the most amazing qualities of human milk is how it adapts. As mother and baby are exposed to bacteria and viruses, milk includes antibodies specific to those antigens. It also contains more general disease-fighting substances that provide help in preventing many common illnesses. A mother will pass antibodies to her baby through her milk, which can actually destroy bacteria in the infant’s gastrointestinal tract before they have a chance to make baby sick. Ear infections and allergies occur more commonly in babies who are not breastfed.

When baby does get sick, one of the best things a mother can do is keep breastfeeding. Babies who are ill need to keep up their fluid intake, especially if there is vomiting or diarrhea. Breastfeeding should continue as usual, and there is rarely a need to replace or supplement human milk with water, juice, or Pedialyte. If the baby is too sick to breastfeed, expressed breast milk can be given from a cup, bottle, syringe, or eyedropper.

If baby’s nose is too stuffy to breastfeed, suggestions include:1,2

  • Run a cool mist vaporizer near where baby sleeps.
  • Take baby into the bathroom after you have filled the room with steam from the shower.
  • Add a pinch of salt to a cup of warm tap water and squirt a few drops into baby’s nostrils using an eyedropper (or use a commercial saline nose spray).
  • Use a nasal aspirator to suction mucus from baby’s nostrils. Squeeze the bulb first, insert the tip into baby’s nose, and then slowly release the bulb so the suction gently pulls out excess mucus. Mom’s health-care provider can show her how to use a nose spray or do nasal suctioning, if she hasn't already been instructed in these techniques.

Here is a video demonstrating nasal suctioning.
When mother is sick, there are a few steps she can take to reduce the chance of passing the illness to her baby, such as washing her hands frequently, and trying not to cough or sneeze on the baby while nursing or whenever baby is close.

Nursing mothers should be cautious of taking over-the-counter medications while breastfeeding. Decongestants can cause babies to be irritable, and antihistamines can make them drowsy.1 Pseudoephedrine has been shown to suppress milk supply. 2 For more information about medications for use in breastfeeding mothers, visit LactMed.

References
1. Gaskin, Ina May. Ina May's Guide to Breastfeeding. NYC: Bantam, 2009.
2. Lauwers, Judith, and Anna Swisher. Counseling the Nursing Mother. Sudbury. MA: Jones and Bartlett, 2011.

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