Over the years, far too many parents have been wrongly told they had to stop breastfeeding. The decision about continuing breastfeeding when the breastfeeding parent takes a drug, for example, is far more involved than whether the baby will get any in the milk. It also involves taking into consideration the risks of not breastfeeding, for the breastfeeding parent, the baby and the family, as well as society. And there are plenty of risks in not breastfeeding, so the question essentially boils down to: Does the addition of a small amount of medication to the breastfeeding parent’s milk make breastfeeding more hazardous than formula feeding? The answer is almost never. Breastfeeding with a little drug in the milk is almost always safer. In other words, being careful means continuing breastfeeding, not stopping. See the information sheet “Breastfeeding and Medications”. The same consideration needs to be taken into account when the breastfeeding parent or the baby is sick.
Remember that stopping breastfeeding for a week or even days may result in permanent weaning as the baby may then not take the breast again. On the other hand, it should be taken into consideration that some babies may refuse to take the bottle completely, so that the advice to stop is not only wrong, but often impractical as well. On top of that it is easy to advise the breastfeeding parent to pump milk while the baby is not breastfeeding, but this is not always easy in practice and the breastfeeding parent may end up painfully engorged.
Very few illnesses require the breastfeeding parent to stop breastfeeding. This is particularly true for infections the breastfeeding parent might have, and infections are the most common type of illness for which breastfeeding parents are told they must stop. Viruses cause most infections, and most infections due to viruses are most infectious before the breastfeeding parent even begins to feel sick. By the time the breastfeeding parent has fever (or runny nose, or diarrhoea, or cough, or rash, or vomiting etc), the infection has probably already passed on to the baby. However, breastfeeding protects the baby against infection, and the breastfeeding parent should continue breastfeeding, in order to protect the baby. If the baby does get sick, which is possible, he is likely to get less sick than if breastfeeding had stopped. But often breastfeeding parents are pleasantly surprised that their babies do not get sick at all. Bacterial infections (such as “strep throat”) are also not of concern for the very same reasons.
Click here for an article written by Dr. Jack Newman further describing how breastfeeding protects infants from infections.
Click here for more information about breastfeeding and illness in the breastfeeding parent.
WHO now recommends that all breastfeeding parents, regardless of their HIV status, practice exclusive breastfeeding – which means no other liquids or food are given – in the first six months. It is recommended that both HIV-positive breastfeeding parents and their infants take antiretroviral drugs throughout the period of breastfeeding and until the infant is 12 months old. This means that the child can benefit from breastfeeding with very little risk of becoming infected with HIV. With the provision of antiretroviral drugs, breastfeeding is made dramatically safer and the “balance of risks” between breastfeeding and replacement feeding is fundamentally changed. A major additional benefit of this recommendation is that the breastfeeding parent’s health is also protected for a greater proportion of HIV-infected women.
Some breastfeeding parents have what are called “autoimmune diseases”, such as idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, autoimmune thyroid disease, autoimmune hemolytic anemia and many others. These illnesses are characterized by antibodies being produced by the body against its own tissues. Some breastfeeding parents have been told that because antibodies get into the milk, they should not breastfeed, as it will cause illness in the baby. This is incredible nonsense. The breastfeeding parent should breastfeed.
The antibodies that make up the vast majority of the antibodies in the milk are of the type called secretory IgA. Autoimmune diseases are not caused by secretory IgA. Even if they were, the baby does not absorb secretory IgA. There is no issue. Continue breastfeeding.
There is no reason that you cannot continue breastfeeding if you become pregnant. There is no evidence that breastfeeding while pregnant does any harm to you, or the baby in your womb or to the one who is nursing. If you wish to stop, do so slowly, though; because pregnancy is associated with a decreased milk supply and the baby may stop on his own. For articles supporting lack of negative effect of breastfeeding on pregnancy, click here and here.
Breastfeeding rarely needs to be discontinued for infant illness. Through breastfeeding, the breastfeeding parent is able to comfort the sick child, and, by breastfeeding, the child is able to comfort the parent.
A sick baby does not need breastfeeding less, he needs it more!!
If the question you have is not discussed above, do not assume that you must stop breastfeeding. Do not stop. Get more information. Breastfeeding parents have been told they must stop breastfeeding for reasons too silly to discuss.
The information presented here is general and not a substitute for personalized treatment from an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) or other qualified medical professionals.
This information sheet may be copied and distributed without further permission on the condition that it is not used in any context that violates the WHO International Code on the Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes (1981) and subsequent World Health Assembly resolutions. If you don’t know what this means, please email us to ask!
©IBC, updated July 2009, January 2017
Questions or concerns? Email Dr. Jack Newman (read the page carefully, and answer the listed questions).
Make an appointment at the Newman Breastfeeding Clinic.