Does Breastfeeding Protect Against Flu in Winter?

Continuing to breastfeed is one of the best things you can do for yourself and your baby during flu season or when under the weather - Find out why!

Why Breastfeeding During Flu Season Can Help

It may surprise many parents to learn that continuing to breastfeed while your little one is sick or under the weather is actually one of the best things you can do fo them during this challenging time. Your baby may want to nurse more frequently for comfort while feeling unwell, or he or she may have difficulties breastfeeding due to congestion, a sore throat, or general fatigue or crankiness stemming from their illness. Even if you encounter challenges along the way, breastfeeding during flu season is a valuable, important way that you can proactively protect your baby and their developing immune system from being especially vulnerable to viruses, bacteria, and other illness-causing germs - particularly if he or she is in daycare, has school-aged siblings, or is often around other children. 

According to the Oklahoma State Department of Health, continued breastfeeding is strongly recommended if your baby is sick with the flu or another common illness. They suggest:

  • Giving your baby frequent chances to breastfeed often during their illness - though if he or she is too sick to nurse properly, you should increase your pumping sessions to ensure that your breast milk supply doesn't dip. Pumping will also ensure that your little one still receives all the beneficial antibodies and other nutrients in your milk through a cup, bottle, syringe, or eye-dropper. 
  • Remembering that babies who are sick need more fluids than when they are well and talking to your pediatrician right away if your little one doesn't show signs of improvement and/or doesn't want to take breast milk at all, even if pumped first. If your baby has been vomiting and/or having diarrhea, increased fluids and a healthcare provider visit are especially important. When speaking with your doctor, be sure to let him or her know all the symptoms your little one has been experiencing. 
  • Remaining patient through any breastfeeding challenges, as the nutrients your baby receives from your breast milk are better for them than anything else - including options like juice (per the American Academy of Pediatrics, juice is not recommended at all for babies under 12 months old), Pedialyte®, and even water. 

Your breast milk is amazing, mama, and it has been shown to strengthen your little one's immune system while aiding in the proactive prevention of common illnesses. In fact, breast milk adapts quickly to the changing needs of your baby, especially if they are fighting the flu, a cold, or are unwell. When this happens, your milk develops specific antibodies to combat any viruses, bacteria, or germs that he or she may have encountered - making breast milk an excellent defense against illness and especially important to continue providing to your little one during flu season and beyond.

Does Breastfeeding Protect Against Flu in Adults?

According to the CDC, mothers who have the flu or who may have been exposed to the flu should continue breastfeeding. Because your breast milk changes and adapts to your baby's needs, specific antibodies and other nutrients will develop in your milk to protect your little one. Additionally, the CDC has stated that flu is not passed through breast milk. Instead, it typically circulates from person to person via respiratory droplets that spread through:

  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Talking closely
  • Kissing
  • Sharing utensils or drinks
  • Touching a surface with the flu virus and then touching your mouth or nose

If you suspect you have the flu, care should be taken to ensure your baby isn't exposed by way of the above list. Rest assured that simply breastfeeding will not put him or her at a higher risk of becoming sick. However, you may wish to take extra precautionary measures when nursing, cuddling, rocking, or playing with your little one, such as:

  • Washing your hands often, especially before and after holding or touching your baby and handling things like bottles, nipples, caps, lids, cups, toys, and other items that will come in contact with him or her
  • Coughing or sneezing into a tissue, disposing of it right away, and washing your hands directly after
  • Limiting kisses and close face-to-face contact with your little one (we know, it's hard!)
  • Wearing a face mask while breastfeeding to avoid accidentally coughing or sneezing on your baby
  • Washing your breasts with soap and water before your baby nurses
  • Using clean blankets, linens, and burp cloths during each breastfeeding session

Be sure to continue pumping if you are under the weather or fighting the flu, especially if there are occasions where a breastfeeding session may have been missed. Breast milk supply can decrease when you're sick, so increasing the frequency of your pumping sessions will tell your body that it should still be producing your liquid gold. Chatting with a lactation consultant during this time can be especially helpful to ensure any dip in supply is quickly resolved. Your lactation consultant can also share helpful tips for maximizing your pumping sessions while breastfeeding during flu season or when fighting a common illness. 

Finally, be sure to let your healthcare provider know that you are breastfeeding, as this may help inform what medication they choose to prescribe if you have been diagnosed with the flu. The CDC states that influenza antiviral prescription medications are safe to use while nursing or providing expressed breast milk to your baby, though some flu medicines may have more safety data currently available than others. Though breast milk feeding through the flu - whether it's you or your little one affected - can be challenging, continuing to provide your liquid gold to your baby can also be incredibly beneficial to you both. You got this, mama!

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