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Breastfeeding and hospitalisation

Introduction 

When a mother or her child needs hospital care, it is natural for her to worry whether breastfeeding will be affected. She may have questions about breastfeeding, expressing milk and sometimes even weaning. In most casesit is possible,and often better, to keep going. 

 

Before admission 

Whether it is you, your baby or your older child who needs to go to hospital, tell your doctor that you are breastfeeding. Ask that you and your baby be kept together whenever possible. Hospital policies generally try to protect the breastfeeding relationship. However, staff may need special permission if normal procedures need to be changed. Unless the matter is urgent, it pays to take the time beforehand to make a plan that doesn’t disrupt breastfeeding too much. 

 

Make sure nursing staff also know you are breastfeeding. It should be recorded on the treatment form, for when shifts change. If you need to, record it yourself when you sign the form. 

 

Going to hospital is often stressful and exhausting. Your baby may not feed as well or as often as usual. Less milk is then removed which can lower your supply. If you have time to plan ahead, express and freeze some extra feeds. This will be a useful backup if your supply drops briefly or if you cannot feed for any reason (e.g. you or baby are too ill or while you are in surgery). Most mothers find that even if their supply does drop while they are in hospital, it soon builds up again when they are home and feeding normally. 

 

Timing 

You may be able to choose when to go to hospital or have surgery. Sometimes it is easier when a baby is older and can be cared for away from the hospital, at least during the day. Many minor operations can be done as day surgery. 

 

Costs 

Health department policies include allowances for mothers and breastfed babies to stay together in public hospitals. Private hospital charges vary. It is wise to find out early how much you will need to pay. Check what costs are covered by your health fund, especially if a private room is needed to admit your baby with you. 

 

The accommodation and facilities available depend on the individual hospital or ward. There may be rooms set aside or just a folding bed or a recliner, either in the ward or nearby. Check if meals are provided or can be bought cheaply from a canteen or from the staff dining room. Is there family accommodation nearby? 

 

People living in isolated rural areas may have some travel and accommodation costs reimbursed by government schemes to assist isolated families. Ask local departments of health or human services or a social worker at your hospital about the assistance available in your state or territory. 

 

What will you need to provide? 

Unless it is the baby who is the patient, you will probably need to supply everything he needs, including a pram or portable cot for sleeping. Take your breast pump, if you have one, along with milk containers, wipes and a hand towel.Breast pumpscan be hired from some ABA groups. 

 

Those left at home 

You will probably find it easier if you know the situation at home is under control. Enlist help from friends and family. They may be able to care for your other children, collect them from school and provide some meals. Looking after your well children in a hospital setting while only one child is ill can be difficult and exhausting. The change in surroundings and routine can sometimes unsettle an older baby or toddler more than a partial separation from his mother. A baby who normally has three to four feeds a day and readily takes solids and other fluids, may be able to manage on fewer breastfeeds a day while you are in hospital. 

 

Talk to your children about what is happening. Think of ways to help them keep in touch. They may be able to visit, speak to you on the phone or by video call, or make a card or special gift. Ask your partner, a family member or friend to take over from you at the hospital, while you spend some time with each of your children, either at home or in the hospital grounds. 

 

When your breastfed baby or toddler is hospitalised 

Doctors and hospitals now accept that a baby or child in hospital needs to be with his mother, especially when they are breastfed. Your breast is a familiar and secure place. Breastfeeding will help him cope better with any pain or discomfort from hospital procedures.1 

 

Antibodies and other factors in your breastmilk will aid your baby’s recovery. It provides excellent nutrition and hydration and is easy for a sick baby to digest.2 
 

When an operation is needed 

If you or your baby will need surgery, you will probably be given a sedative or anaesthetic. Vomiting when under a general anaesthetic is dangerous so you will need to fast first. For more information about this, see our article on breastfeeding and anaesthesia. 

 

If your child has a drip or their treatment restricts movement, you may have to try different or unusual feeding positions. Ask the nursing staff to help you position your baby so that you can breastfeed without disturbing dressings or equipment. Breastfeeding can be the best way to keep older babies or toddlers calm and still and may reduce their need for sedatives. 

 

If your baby is in isolation, ask the nursing staff to show you the procedures you need to follow so that you can stay with them. 

 

If leaving baby 

If you cannot stay with your baby all the time, you will need to leave someexpressed breastmilk(EBM) for staff to feed to them when you are not there. If they have not had milk from a bottle before, you may like to ask to be fed your EBM by cup. This helps avoid possible problems when you return to breastfeeding that are sometimes caused by the faster flow rate and different type of sucking needed for the bottle. 

 

Older hospitalised child and a breastfed baby 

What do you do if you want to stay with your sick child and you have a breastfed baby? This depends on the needs of your hospitalised child and the amount of time you need to spend there. Each situation is different. 

 

Very young babies can usually be carried in a sling or kept close to you in a pram. If there is room, older, more mobile babies may be happy in a portable cot for both sleep and play. If you can, take regular breaks. Go for a walk or have a relative or friend look after him for part of the day or between feeds. Even if there is a play space in the ward, your sick child will probably want you close by. 

 

If you are breastfeeding twins and one is hospitalised, your doctor might agree to have the other admitted as well, or arrange for you to keep both babies with you. 

 

When the breastfeeding mother is hospitalised 

If a breastfeeding mother herself has to be hospitalised, she is likely to worry if she will be able to keep breastfeeding. In almost all cases it is possible, and often better, to continue.2 Sudden weaning can be very distressing for both mother and baby. It puts the mother at risk of engorgement and mastitis, while some babies are so upset that they cry for long periods and may refuse bottles or other food. 

 

If you or your baby are having surgery, you are likely to need to fast. See our article about breastfeeding and anaesthesia for helpful information to prepare. 

 

If you are too ill to have your baby with you or the hospital doesn’t allow it, ask staff or your partner to help you express your breasts regularly. Have your baby brought in for visits and breastfeeds as often as possible. 

 

A short-term drop in milk supply is a natural response to the stress of illness or surgery. Often the supply quickly returns to normal either in hospital or soon after discharge. More frequent feeds and plenty of rest will rebuild your supply to meet your baby’s needs in a few days. In fact, even if you have had to wean temporarily, it is possible to start breastfeeding again. 

 

Drugs 

Most medicines taken by a breastfeeding mother pass into her breastmilk at low levels and won’t affect her baby.3It is rare to need to stop breastfeeding altogether. Discuss all prescribed medications fully with a health professional to ensure they are safe while breastfeeding.If your doctor is unsure, ask that they check with drug information experts. 

 

Co-sleeping while taking medications that make you drowsy is dangerous and inadvisable. 

 

Going home 

Expect it to take time to get back to normal after you go home. Your children may be unsettled and ‘clingy’ or they may be angry and have tantrums. They may need extra reassurance and more cuddles and breastfeeds than usual. You may feel very tired. 

 

Listen to your doctor’s advice about restrictions and rest. The less you do, the faster you will recover. Ask your partner, family or friends to help with lifting, cleaning and meal preparation. Breastfeeding provides a wonderful opportunity to sit or lie down and relax while you are recovering. 

 

There may be community support services that can help you. If you have young children and a serious illness, hospitalisation or a lengthy recovery time, you may need extra child care or a paid nanny. Additional benefits may be payable on a short-term basis in these circumstances. Ask you child care provider or contact Services Australia for more information 
 

Finally 

If you have questions about breastfeeding when you are in hospital or afterwards, help is only a telephone call away. ABA counsellors can offer the information, support and encouragement you need to keep going, as well as reassurance that a good supply of milk can be built up again. 

 

At the end of their hospital experience, some mothers give feedback to the hospital in the form of constructive criticism or positive comments. This may help other families with a breastfeeding mother or baby in hospital. 

 

© Australian Breastfeeding Association February 2022

 

The information on this website does not replace advice from your health care providers. 

 

Last reviewed:  

February 2022 

 

 

References 

 

1. McNair, C., Campbell-Yeo, M., Johnston, C., & Taddio, A. (2019). Nonpharmacologic management of pain during common needle puncture procedures in infants: Current research evidence and practical considerations: An update. Clinics in Perinatology, 46(4), 709–730. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.clp.2019.08.006 

2. Coates, M. M., & Riordan, J. (1992). Breastfeeding during maternal or infant illness. NAACOG's Clinical Issues in Perinatal and Women's Health Nursing, 3(4), 683–694.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1476848/   

3. Australian Government Department of Health. (2021). Medicines and breastfeeding. Health Direct.https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/medicines-and-breastfeeding 

 

 

Last reviewed: 
Mar 2022