Breastfeeding a Sick Baby

Colds, Ear Infections, and Stomach Bugs

Hispanic mother holding unhappy baby girl
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Breastfeeding can help protect your baby from getting sick, but it cannot completely prevent some of the common illnesses of infancy. At some point, your child may get an ear infection, catch a cold, or develop an upset stomach. When this happens, the best thing you can do is continue to breastfeed.

How Breastfeeding Helps When a Child is Sick 

When Your Baby Has a Cold

If your baby has a cold and a stuffy nose, but she can breastfeed OK, you don't have to do anything to treat her stuffy nose. However, a stuffy nose can often make breastfeeding more difficult. Since infants breathe through their nose, it can be frustrating for the baby as she tries to nurse and breathe at the same the time. If your child is fussy at the breast and not nursing well, you can try to ease the nasal congestion to make breastfeeding more comfortable for her.  

How to Deal With Nasal Congestion

  • Use a bulb syringe aspirator to gently suck out the mucus from your baby’s nostrils before nursing.
  • Saline nose drops for infants can be used to help loosen secretions and open the nasal passages.
  • Hot, moist air from a humidifier can help clear the nose and make it easier for your baby to breathe. If you do not have a humidifier, steam can work as a humidifier. You just have to sit in the bathroom with the baby while you run a hot shower. 
  • Try nursing your child in an upright position.
  • If your baby continues to have a difficult time breastfeeding, contact your pediatrician.
  • Do not give your baby any over-the-counter medication without first consulting the doctor.

When Your Baby Has an Ear Infection

An ear infection can be painful, especially during breastfeeding. If your little one is in pain, he may nurse only for a short time at each feeding. So, it's important to breastfeed very often. You may need to pump or express some breast milk between feedings to relieve breast engorgement and keep up your milk supply. Notify your pediatrician if you suspect your child has an ear infection. The doctor may want to see the baby and prescribe an antibiotic.

When Your Baby Has a Stomach Bug

Gastrointestinal illness is less common in breastfed babies; however, it does happen. Vomiting and diarrhea can lead to dehydration, which can be very dangerous in infancy. Breast milk helps fight against diarrhea. It is easily digested and more likely to stay down when your baby is sick. Be sure to breastfeed frequently to replace the fluids your child is losing and keep your baby hydrated 

How a Child's Illness Affects Breastfeeding

Depending on the illness and the child, you may see a change in your breastfeeding routine when your child is sick. A sick child may need more comfort and want to breastfeed more often or stay at the breast for a longer time at each feeding.

Or, your child may not feel well, sleep more, and breastfeed less.

If your child is breastfeeding less:

When to Notify Your Child's Pediatrician

  • Your child has a fever. A fever is a sign of an infection. You can continue to breastfeed but call the doctor. Your baby may need an antibiotic.
  • Your baby is not breastfeeding well.  If you notice a change in your baby's breastfeeding pattern and all of a sudden your child isn't nursing well or refusing to nurse, you should notify the doctor right away. Poor feeding in infants can be a sign of illness. It can also quickly lead to dehydration.
  • The baby isn't wetting her diaper. If your child is only producing a small amount of dark, concentrated urine, that's a concern. It's a sign that she's not breastfeeding well and becoming dehydrated. 
  • Your child is vomiting. If your baby is vomiting after most feedings, it's a sign that something is not right. Call the doctor or take your child to an emergency room. 

 

Sources: 

Ballard, O., & Morrow, A. L. Human Milk Composition: Nutrients and Bioactive Factors. Pediatric Clinics of North America. 2013; 60 (1): 49–74: http://doi.org/10.1016/j.pcl.2012.10.002

Lawrence, Ruth A., MD, Lawrence, Robert M., MD.  Breastfeeding A Guide For The Medical Profession Eighth Edition. Elsevier Health Sciences. 2015.

Riordan, J., and Wambach, K. Breastfeeding and Human Lactation Fourth Edition. Jones and Bartlett Learning. 2014.

 

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