Breastfeeding When Baby is Unwell

Fortunately, due to the immunity boosting factors in your breast-milk, your breastfed baby will usually be healthy and well. However, if your baby does get sick, for instance with a cold or ear infection, this may affect his feeding. He may find it difficult to suck with a blocked nose, he may refuse feeds because it is painful to nurse or he may go on a feeding binge as though he ‘knows’ his tiny body needs a boost of antibodies to beat the bugs. Often, one of the first signs that a breastfed baby is ‘coming down with something’ is that he steps up his feeds and may seem to be wanting to nurse almost continuously.

However serious your baby’s illness is, you can almost always continue breastfeeding.

If your baby can take anything by mouth, your milk provides perfect nutrition – it is easily digested and provides antibodies to help him fight infection: If you come into contact with a bug, you will produce antibodies in your milk that protect your baby and if he comes into contact with a bug that you may not have – for instance, at childcare- the transfer of germs from your baby’s mouth to your breast will stimulate your more experienced immune system to make antibodies that will be passed in your milk to your baby.

As well as keeping your baby hydrated, which is important whenever a baby becomes unwell, the comfort provided by breastfeeding is also important to your baby’s recovery.

Colds and ear infections

If your baby does develop a cold or ear infection and finds it difficult to breastfeed, you could try carrying him in an upright position such as in a sling or carrier prior to feeds as this may help mucous drain from his nose, making sucking easier. Feeding your baby in an upright position (sit him straddled across your lap facing the breast) will reduce pressure on baby’s ears (and pain) that is created when your baby is lying down.

Using a humidifier or vaporiser (but please check with your health carer and take safety precautions eg don't use heat/steam close to baby in case of burns) in the room where your baby sleeps and where you feed him or try feeding in the bathroom with the hot shower running, the steam/moist air will help loosen mucus in your baby's nose and make it easier for him to breathe and feed.

You can also clear your baby’s nose with a suction bulb or a snot sucker such as a nose frida (I know this sounds gross but you wont get snot in your mouth) or try an 'electric' sucker. Please be careful though, not to upset yor baby with this at feeding times as an upset baby will have difficulty feeding.

If your baby cannot suck effectively, you may need to express and feed him with a spoon or cup (even young babies will often feed well from a shot glass).

Colds can be a normal part of childhood but if you are at all concerned about your baby, please seek medical help - trust your Mama intuiton, you know your well baby best and you know when anything is 'off'.  You are never an 'over anxious' parent! 

 Any baby under three months with any illness or fever (a temperature over 38 degrees) should ALWAYS be seen by a doctor.  And at any age, please get your baby or toddler checked when they are unwell if they are having difficulty breathing (if the skin retracts ('pulls in') below or the ribcage as they breathe; if they 'grunt' as they breathe; or their head bobs every time they breathe in), If they are inconsolable, not feeding at all (a baby having difficulty breathing will have difficulty maintaining a latch), having fewer wet nappies, so sleepy they can't be roused or you are concerned at all - you are the expert about your baby! 

Diarrhoea and vomiting

It is common for parents to become concerned about their baby’s bowel motions, especially when we consider that a breastfed baby can normally have as many as six to eight dirty nappies in the early weeks and that some of these poos can be loose, watery and occasionally even greenish in colour.

Diarrhoea in a breastfed baby can also be a side effect of medications, such as vitamin supplements or antibiotics taken by a breastfeeding mother and occasionally, some sensitive babies will react to a new food eaten by mum or a single bottle of formula, with vomiting or diarrhoea.

If your baby has a temperature as well as frequent or foul smelling bowel motions, or at any time that you are concerned about your baby’s health, especially if you feel your baby is becoming dehydrated (symptoms include listlessness, lethargy, dry mouth, reduced urine output, and fever), please see a doctor urgently.

The best way to prevent dehydration is to offer your baby small frequent breastfeeds and if an oral rehydration solution is advised by your doctor, you can and should continue to breastfeed. If you are advised to take your child off all milk products, including breast-milk, please question this. This is because as well as the antibodies in your milk which will help your baby recover, this isn’t a good time to take away the comfort of nursing, even temporarily, if it can be avoided. At any time your intuition is in conflict with your health carer’s advice, you can seek another opinion to work out a solution that suits you and your baby, as well as what works from a medical perspective.  

This post is intended as general breastfeeding advice only, if you have concerns about your baby's health at any time, please consult your family doctor.