Breast milk contains everything a baby needs to stay nourished and hydrated for the first six months of its life: water, fats, carbohydrates, proteins, immunoglobulins and even stem cells, among other components of human milk ― some of which we still don’t comprehend entirely.
But what about germs? If you’re passing along everything via your breast milk, including the taste of the spicy or garlicky meal you had last night, don’t you risk passing along illness when you’re sick?
As it turns out, breast milk contains antibodies that help babies fight off illness, whether it’s yours or theirs. And there are other reasons to keep breastfeeding even when you’re feeling awful.
You have to nurse to keep nursing.
If you want to breastfeed your baby once you’re feeling better, you can’t simply stop while you’re sick.
“It is important to continue with frequent emptying of the breasts to preserve milk supply,” Dr. Ann Kellams, president of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine, told HuffPost.
The amount of milk that you produce is determined by demand — that is, how often your breasts are emptied ― so slowing down or stopping altogether can reduce your supply. And while it might be possible to build your supply back up later, there’s no guarantee.
“As soon as the breasts are drained less, the body gets a signal to start making less milk,” Kellams explained.
This risk is highest in the first few weeks postpartum, when your milk supply is being established. Based on how much milk your baby takes in, your breasts calibrate how much milk to produce. Not nursing enough during that initial period can throw off the entire process.
In extreme cases, where you have to be hospitalized or otherwise kept away from your baby, regular pumping can help keep your supply up.
You’ll pass along antibodies that will help your baby stay healthy.
We’ve all grown accustomed to the idea of isolating ourselves while ill to protect others, but the reality is that by the time you’re feeling sick, it’s likely that those germs have already reached your baby.
Certified lactation consultant Catherine Watson Genna explained to HuffPost that with an infectious illness, “there’s a time when it’s reproducing inside and you don’t even know, so by the time mom has symptoms, the baby is already exposed.”
Before you start to feel sick, not only has your body begun to make antibodies to fight off the illness, it has begun passing them along.
“Antibodies will be passed through the breast milk that offer protection for babies,” Kellams said.
Studies have found that the same holds true for vaccinations. The milk of parents who had been vaccinated against COVID-19, for example, was found to contain antibodies against the disease.
Nursing offers your baby comfort and can help keep them hydrated.
A fussy, feverish baby that isn’t feeling well will probably want to nurse frequently. It’s a simple way to soothe them and encourage them to sleep — meaning you might be able to get some rest, too.
And just like older children and adults, babies need to stay hydrated when they’re sick.
“Sick babies require continued fluid and nutrition and comfort,” Kellams said.
Unless your baby has severe vomiting and/or diarrhea, “breastfeeding really frequently is enough to keep them from getting dehydrated,” said Watson Genna. “Breast [milk] is the very best oral rehydration.”
Suddenly stopping nursing can cause its own set of problems.
Ideally, weaning your baby is a gradual process, something you both ease into over a matter of weeks or months. This allows your body time to taper down the amount of milk you produce.
If you suddenly stop breastfeeding your baby because you’re sick, your body will initially keep producing the usual amount of milk, potentially leading to painfully engorged breasts, clogged milk ducts and mastitis, an infection of the breast that can cause pain, redness, chills and fever.
Even in the case of mastitis, when the infection you’re fighting is focused in your breast, it’s safe to continue breastfeeding your baby. In fact, your child may help by clearing out the infected milk duct.
There are few circumstances in which you should stop nursing, but they might include receiving radioactive medicine or chemotherapy, or an active herpes lesion on the breast, Kellams said. If you’re uncertain, it’s best to ask your doctor or your baby’s pediatrician.
If you need to temporarily take a medication that isn’t compatible with breastfeeding, you may be able to “pump and dump” (pump milk and then discard it) for the duration of your treatment and nurse again once it’s over.
Your milk can help your baby fight illness.
Even if you haven’t come down with the same bug, there’s evidence that your breast milk will contain antibodies to help your baby fight off whatever is making them sick.
“There is data to show that infections in a baby prompt the nursing parent’s body to alter the composition of milk and produce increased antibodies and protective factors targeted at that specific organism,” Kellams said.
How does the nursing parent’s body know what is sickening the baby? There’s evidence that the infant’s saliva makes its way inside the breast, signaling to the nursing parent which antibodies to produce.
“The cool thing about breast milk is that it is a personalized medicine in addition to being protective and nutritious,” Kellams said. “The nursing parent’s body is constantly producing antibodies to infectious agents in the environment that the mother and baby share due to close proximity to each other. It is a very elegant system.”