Can a mother still breastfeed when she is unwell?
There are very few maternal illnesses that require the mother to stop breastfeeding. The World Health Organization’s publication ‘Acceptable medical reasons for use of breast-milk substitutes’ covers the few medical reasons why a baby should be not be fed their mother’s breastmilk.
In other situations where a mother has an infection of some sort, breastfeeding can and should continue. The many immune protective factors in breastmilk (including antibodies, white blood cells etc) help to protect the baby from infection. When a mother is exposed to an infection, her immune system will produce antibodies to fight off the infection. She will then pass on these antibodies to her baby through her breastmilk. This will make it less likely for her baby to get sick. Breastfeeding mothers are often pleasantly surprised that their baby does not get sick, even if the rest of the family does. This is because breastfeeding protects the baby.
If the baby does get sick however, the illness will be less serious than if the baby was not breastfed.1
What is gastroenteritis?
Gastroenteritis is an infection of the gastro-intestinal tract. It is one of the most common illnesses in infants and children. The symptoms are diarrhoea and vomiting.
In Australia, around 50% of GP visits for children under 6 years of age are for gastroenteritis.2 Of all hospital admissions due to infections in Australia, gastrointestinal infections are the most common reason.3
Normal bowel motions of a breastfed baby
Normal bowel motions of a breastfed baby are sometimes mistaken for diarrhoea by adults unfamiliar with breastfed babies.
It is normal for exclusively breastfed babies to have frequent mustard-yellow (occasionally green) bowel motions. Exclusively breastfed babies have bowel motions that are often liquid with a few curds. The odour of a breastfed baby’s bowel motions is often mild due to the presence of a substance (bifidus factor) in breastmilk that supports the growth of good bacteria in a baby’s bowel. Frequent soft bowel motions show that a young baby is getting enough breastmilk.
Once over the age of about 6 weeks, babies vary in the frequency with which they have bowel motions. Some still have frequent daily bowel motions while other babies have a bowel motion once every 7–14 days.4,5 Whatever the frequency for a baby over the age of 6 weeks, as long as the bowel motion is soft and easy to pass, this is usually all normal.
Breastfeeding protects against gastroenteritis
The support that breastmilk gives a baby’s immune system it not available to babies who are fed infant formula. For this reason, breastfed babies are four times less likely to develop diarrhoea associated with gastroenteritis than formula-fed babies.6 If a breastfed baby does get gastroenteritis, the duration is typically shorter and it is less severe than for a formula-fed baby.1
If a baby has gastroenteritis, it is important to keep breastfeeding
Whenever a baby is unwell, it is important to seek medical advice. You may find the following link helpful from the Royal Children’s Hospital website: https://www.rch.org.au/kidsinfo/fact_sheets/Gastroenteritis_gastro/
Breastfeeding helps prevent gastroenteritis and also helps a baby to recover. Frequent breastfeeds will help ensure that any fluid lost from diarrhoea or vomiting will be replaced. The length of the breastfeeds is not important. Follow your baby’s lead and allow your baby to breastfeed as often and for as long as your baby wants. Breastmilk will also continue to provide essential nutrients that are easy for a baby to absorb.
If a mother has gastroenteritis
When a mother is unwell, it is important to seek medical advice. She needs to get as much rest as possible, to leave chores to others, to maintain personal hygiene and to keep up her fluids. You may find the following link helpful from the NSW government health website: http://www.health.nsw.gov.au/Infectious/factsheets/Pages/Viral-Gastroenteritis.aspx
For further information
You may find our booklet Breastfeeding: diet, exercise, sex and more useful. It contains some hints and tips about keeping yourself healthy. This can be purchased from the the Australian Breastfeeding Association shop.
- Lamberti, L., Fischer Walker, C., Noiman, A., Victora, C., Black, R 2011, Breastfeeding and the risk for diarrhoea morbidity and mortality. BMC Public Health 11(Suppl 3),S15.
- Galati, J., Harsley, S., Richmond, P., Carlin, J 2006, The burden of rotavirus-related illness among young children on the Australian health care system. Aust NZ J Public Health 30(5),416-412.
- Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2010, Australia's health 2010. AIHW, Canberra.
- Eggermont, E 2004, Transient, infrequent bowel movements in the exclusively breast-fed infant. Eur J Pediatr 163(10),632-633.
- Choe, Y., Lee, J., Moon, K., Hwand, J., Seo, J 2004, The infrequent bowel movements in young infants who are exclusively breast-fed. Eur J Pediatr 163(10),630-631.
- Quigley, M.A., Cumberland, P., Cowden, J., Rodrigues, L 2006, How protective is breast feeding against diarrhoeal disease in infancy in 1990s England? A case-control study. Arch Dis Child 91(3),245-250.
© Australian Breastfeeding Association August 2017
The information on this website does not replace advice from your health care providers.