Can Breastfeeding Mothers Take Painkillers?

Narcotic Painkillers Can Be Bad for the Breastfed Baby

Mother breastfeeding
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Nursing mothers tend to have such busy lives that nothing--not even pain from a throbbing headache or a lingering injury--can slow them down. Fortunately, taking painkillers while breastfeeding can be done safely, although the right medication and careful monitoring are necessary to ensure the baby's safety.

Pain medications, also known as analgesics, can be either over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription strength.

Prescription-strength painkillers are more potent than the OTC versions, but they also present more potential dangers to a nursing baby. However, OTC analgesics are not without risks either. Some drugs in both categories can cause health problems in newborns and even life-threatening complications.

Many breastfeeding mothers receive well-meaning advice from others to stop nursing if they take any medication regularly. But stopping breastfeeding may not be necessary, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which strongly recommends that infants be breastfed until they are at least 12 months old.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control, about 74% of new babies in 2005 were breastfed for some period of time; about 43% were still nursing at 6 months old and 21% at 1 year.

Many OTC medications pass through breast milk in such small amounts that infants aren't significantly affected, according to the AAP, and even prescription painkiller use may not warrant severing the nursing relationship.

Here's a description of various analgesics, along with guidelines for which drugs are considered safe during breastfeeding and which should be avoided. Check with your physician before taking any medication while breastfeeding.

OTC painkillers themselves come in two categories, based on their active ingredient(s):

  • Acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol, is generally considered safe in pregnancy and has been well researched. Acetaminophen is used primarily for headaches, fever, aches, pains and sore throat.
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) include aspirin as well as Advil or Motrin (ibuprofen) and Aleve (naproxen). Aspirin should be avoided by nursing mothers because its blood-thinning properties can cause rashes or bleeding abnormalities in breastfed infants. Ibuprofen and naproxen, however, are considered safe for mother and baby.

Prescription painkillers are sometimes used for intense pain resulting from injuries, surgery, dental work or migraine headaches.

Prescription analgesics include codeine, OxyContin (morphine) or Percocet (oxycodone and acetaminophen), Demerol (meperidine), Duragesic (fentanyl), and Vicodin (hydrocodone). Physicians very rarely allow the use of such medications by breastfeeding mothers when the benefits clearly outweigh the potential risks. Please keep in mind, however, that prescription opioid misuse is a rampant problem and very rarely should narcotics be prescribed by physicians.

For all narcotics, the risks to nursing infants include excessive drowsiness, difficulty breathing and poor feeding. Regular use of opioids by breastfeeding mothers is not advised.

Nursing mothers should always tell any physician if they are breastfeeding, especially physicians who prescribe pain medication.  Sometimes a physician will prescribe something without realizing or asking if the mother is nursing.

Content edited by Naveed Saleh, MD, MS, on 2/11/2016.


"Breastfeeding: Frequently Asked Questions." 27 Jul. 2007. Centers for Disease Control. 5 Feb. 2009
"Is It Safe for My Baby?" 2009. Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. 9 Feb. 2009 
"Medication Exposures During Pregnancy and Breastfeeding: Frequently Asked Questions." 29 Oct. 2004. Centers for Disease Control. 3 Feb. 2009
"Narcotic Painkillers." 30 Oct. 2007. Kaiser Permanente Hospital Network. 9 Feb. 2009
"OTC Medicines and How They Work." March 2008. American Academy of Family Physicians. 3 Feb. 2009
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"The Transfer of Drugs and Other Chemicals into Human Milk." Sept. 2001. American Academy of Pediatrics. 6 Feb. 2009
"Use of Codeine Products in Nursing Mothers." 17 Aug. 2007. US Food and Drug Administration. 10 Feb. 2009

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