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Can I Keep Breastfeeding While I'm Sick?

Photograph by Twenty20

When I started nursing for the first time, I had so many questions. I read a book while I was pregnant but still felt clueless when it was time to put my knowledge into practice. Like many moms, I turned to Google first before calling my lactation consultant. I learned some lessons the hard way by opting for Google over a professional and picked up some misinformation about what is and isn’t OK while breastfeeding.

There are a lot of breastfeeding myths out there. Many moms still believe that all sushi is off limits if you are nursing and I pumped-and-dumped after a single drink during my first six months of breastfeeding. As it turns out, neither of these things are true. If I make my way to Google, and type in the words “Can I nurse…” it autocompletes with some of the more popular searches, and I think it's a good indication of the questions moms are really asking about breastfeeding. Among those searches is one question I see come up on a regular basis: Can I nurse while I’m sick or running a fever?

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Of course, this is a valid concern. Many moms choose to breastfeed because they want to give their child the best start they can in life. It seems normal to be concerned about passing on your illness to your baby through close contact or your breast milk. I belong to multiple breastfeeding support groups online and find this question comes up a lot among both first-time moms and veteran nursing moms who simply want to make the decision that is best for their child. Still, I’m surprised to find out how many moms assume they can’t breastfeed while sick and stop nursing the moment they start to feel poorly.

Most babies have already been exposed to their mother’s illness by the time their mom realizes she is ill.

I decided to get the final word on this commonly believed breastfeeding myth from an expert. Dr. Aleishia Harris-Arnold is an immunologist with a doctorate from Stanford Medical School and recently became a stay-at-home mom to her first child, who is just over a year old. As an immunologist, she is an expert in all things related to the immune system and explained exactly why moms shouldn’t worry about nursing their babies while sick.

The first thing she explained was that most babies have already been exposed to their mother’s illness by the time their mom realizes she is ill and that continuing to breastfeed is the best plan of attack for keeping your baby healthy when you are sick.

“By continuing to breastfeed they give their babies antibodies against their illness as well as other components of the immune system to help baby's immature system to recognize and fight the sickness,” she explained. “Antibodies work by tagging the virus, bacteria or other pathogen so that baby's immune system knows what to fight.”

In addition to the antibodies being passed through breast milk, continuing to nurse gives the added immune boosting benefits associated with breastfeeding.

“Other breast milk immune factors act as the first step in the pathogen-fighting chain reaction, and still others are cells (leukocytes) that can fight the infection directly! By continuing to nurse while sick, Mamas help fight the infection in baby often before baby starts feeling sick. “

So, take it from a mom who knows her stuff: There is no reason to quit breastfeeding if you are coming down with a cold or the flu. The only exceptions to this rule are if you have an HIV infection or a rare lymphoma virus knowns as HTLV-1, according to Dr. Harris-Arnold.

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Dr. Harris-Arnold also explained that, even though mom doesn’t need to stop nursing if she is ill, there are a few important things to keep in mind. Caring for yourself if you are ill while nursing is especially important to both your health and the health of your baby. Make an extra effort to stay hydrated and get plenty of rest as long as you are feeling ill.

Nurse on, mama, and get some rest—you deserve it!

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