We are officially at the peak of cold and flu season here on the East Coast, according to a report from sickweather.com. Many mothers wonder if they can continue to breastfeed while experiencing symptoms associated with the common cold or flu. In most cases, the answer is YES! In fact, breastfeeding may be the very best thing you can do to help your baby to keep from falling ill.
Wait…. If I’m feeling sick, wont I pass those germs on to my baby, too?
Yes, but here’s the thing… before you even begin to experience symptoms, your baby has already been exposed to whatever it is that you have been exposed to. The good news is that your body has also producing antibodies to any viruses or pathogens you have come into recent contact with. Numerous studies have shown that the synergistic components in breastmilk offer children protection from all sorts of nasties such as Haemophilus Influenzae Type B (a common cause of ear infections in infants), Streptococcus pneumonae, (the bacteria that cause spinal meningitis), respiratory syncytial virus, and many microbial organisms that cause diarrhea.
Sugars in breastmilk called Human Milk Ogliosaccharides retard the growth of pathogens by producing organic acids that break down the cell walls of viruses and germs. They pass through the infant gut undigested, as they are also a pre-biotic. A pre-biotic? Is that different than a probiotic? Yes, sort of. Prebiotia are FOOD for probiota. That’s right…HMOs do not provide nutrition for your baby! Their main role is to provide nutrition for the beneficial bacteria found in the infant gut, which surprise…human milk also contains several identified species of beneficial bacteria, too! Namely Lactobacilli and Bifido bacteria. These helper bacteria have been proven effective against destroying E. coli, the bacteria that cause Cholera, Campylobacter shigella, and Giardia as well as in the defense of Rotavirus, and cytomegalovirus. So in short, human milk contains not only beneficial bacteria to help your baby fight disease and infection, it contains the food those bacteria need to survive and thrive.
And guess what? It doesn’t end there. Introducing the star of the immune factory show: Breastmilk contains a heavy hitter called Secretory immunoglobulin A (in addition to all of the above mentioned). That’s a mouthful so we just call it SIgA for short. SIgA is your baby’s first line of defense against infection and is responsible for the prevention of bacteria and viruses from binding to the intestinal tract, neutralizing microbial toxins, and increasing virus excretion. Buh-bye bad guys. SIgA is found in its highest concentrations in colostrum and weaning milk.
Human milk also contains a unique form of iron called lactoferrin. The most biologically available form of iron, lactoferrin promotes healthy maturation of the infant gut and protects the newborn against numerous bacteria and fungi by destroying harmful microorganisms.
If you are not feeling well, rest is obviously in order. Avoid cold and flu medications that contain decongestants, as these can sometimes cause a drop in milk supply. Be sure you are getting enough fluids so as not to become dehydrated. Washing hands frequently is always a good idea. Try not to sneeze directly on your baby and certainly don’t use your sling pocket as a tissue receptacle! Curl up with your squish, whatever Netflix guilty pleasure you have not had time to catch up on, and take a nursing vacation. Now is time to call on family or friends for backup, and takeout. Many times, when a cold runs its course through a family, the nursling is the only one who does not end up getting sick. Most colds really only need a few days to run their course and before you know it, you’ll be feeling good as new.
Stuebe, Alison, MD, MSc.. The Risks of Not Breastfeeding for Mothers and Infants. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2812877/
Ballard, O., JD, PhD (candidate), Morrow, L., PhD, MSc
Human Milk Composition: Nutrients and Bioactive Factors
Michelle was a former intern at the BRC and has come back to work for us since passing her IBCLC exam. Before becoming a mother and Lactation Consultant, she enjoyed a career as a biological anthropologist studying the behavioral ecology of non-human primates and indigenous cultures in the rainforests of South America. She currently lives with her husband, two youngest children, two chickens, and a feisty cat in New Jersey.