Whether it’s you or your baby who needs to have an anaesthetic, it can be a stressful and worrying time for you (and your partner).
Being prepared and empowered with knowledge can make a real difference to your experience.
If you’re breastfeeding, you might have questions about how your breastmilk could be affected by the anaesthetic.
In almost all cases, you can continue breastfeeding, and it’s often better that you do.
It’s a much better option than making a sudden decision to wean.
Sudden weaning can have a negative effect on your health and wellbeing, including:
If your baby is having an anaesthetic, remember that your breast is a place of comfort for her. It’s common for a small child to be disorientated and anxious when coming out of an anaesthetic. Breastfeeding can help her cope better with any pain or anxiety she might experience during this time. The range of anti-infective factors in your milk will also help her recovery.
Breastfeeding After General Anaesthesia
Here are 7 tips to help minimise any disruption to breastfeeding after having an anaesthetic:
#1: Make Sure Medical Staff Caring For You Know You Are Breastfeeding
Hospital policies generally try to protect breastfeeding.
Nonetheless, it helps to have a breastfeeding plan worked out in advance to minimise any disruption to breastfeeding.
For example, you could:
- Indicate that it's important for you and your baby to be together whenever possible
- Ask about any medications that will be given to you, to make sure they are compatible with breastfeeding. Pharmacists are a great source of knowledge on drug interactions; if you are in doubt or if you want a second opinion, ask a pharmacist.
- Indicate that you need to breastfeed just before surgery (if it’s you having the surgery) and you want to resume as soon as possible afterwards
#2: Express Beforehand To Get A Backup Store Of Breastmilk
There can be a lot involved in going to hospital. Your normal daily routine can be turned upside down, which means your baby might not feed as well or as often. This could result in less milk being removed from your breasts, and therefore your supply could be reduced.
If you have time to plan ahead, you could express and freeze enough breastmilk for extra feeds if needed. A backup store will be helpful if your supply drops. It could also come in handy if you cannot breastfeed for any reason (e.g. if you or your baby are too unwell, if you’re in surgery, or if you cannot be with your baby all the time).
The good news is most mothers find that even if their supply reduces under such circumstances, it soon increases again when they go home and resume breastfeeding as usual.
#3: Accept Offers For Help And Make A List
Accepting offers of help from your family and friends can help reduce stress. Write a list of ways people could help out – people often want to help but don’t necessarily know how.
For example, family and friends could help by:
- Caring for your children – taking them to school or extra-curricular activities
- Providing meals
- Cleaning your house
- Doing the grocery shopping
#4: A Breastfed Baby Can Typically Breastfeed Up To 2 Hours Before An Anaesthetic
According to the Australian website, All About Anaesthesia:
“Children, and especially infants, do not tolerate long periods of fasting or restriction of fluids, which might quickly lead to dehydration. It is usual to try to minimise the fasting time for children, for food or milk, to six hours before the operation. Cows’ milk or formula is not emptied quickly from the stomach and is considered to be similar to solid food. Breastmilk, on the other hand, is emptied from the stomach more readily and a shorter fasting time is more appropriate. The length of time is often determined by the usual feeding pattern of the infant. Children may drink clear fluids up to two hours before the time of the operation. Parents should consult with the anaesthetist for advice in individual cases.”
Most mothers find it easier if their child’s surgery is done as early in the day as possible, after fasting at home. Ask to be first on the day’s list.
During the fasting period, it can help if your partner, another family member or close friend can take care of your breastfed child. If your child is away from you, she will be less likely to indicate she wants to breastfeed during this time.
#5: What About Breastfeeding After The Anaesthetic?
Ask if you can be with your baby in recovery, and how soon after you can breastfeed her.
Some babies might not want to breastfeed for a while after surgery. If this is the case, let medical staff know so they can make sure she gets enough fluids. You can express to maintain your supply and comfort. You could ask nursing staff about being somewhere private to express if you wish.
If your child has medical attachments (e.g. a drip) or dressings that restrict her movement, you might need to try breastfeeding in different positions. Nursing staff can help you to position her so you can breastfeed without disrupting anything.
#6: You Can Generally Breastfeed Once You're Awake And Alert
In most cases, you will be able to breastfeed right up until the time of your surgery.
After the surgery, once you are awake and alert enough to hold your baby, breastfeeding is usually safe – discuss this with your surgeon and anaesthetist.
Until then, someone else, perhaps your partner, will need to care for your baby.
If you're too ill to start breastfeeding after general anaesthesia, or are unable to have your baby with you, you could ask staff or your partner to help you express your breastmilk to help maintain your supply and comfort. You could have your baby brought in for visits and breastfeeds as often as possible.
For some mothers, various factors associated with having anaesthesia (e.g. being unwell, feeling stress, reduced milk removal) can cause a drop in supply. For most women, however, supply returns to normal once their usual breastfeeding pattern resumes.
Even if you have to wean, temporarily, it’s possible to start breastfeeding again.
#7: Know Who To Contact If You Have Further Breastfeeding Questions
What you've just read should reassure you about breastfeeding after general anaesthesia.
However, if you have questions about breastfeeding, before or after anaesthesia, call an Australian Breastfeeding Association counsellor, (La Leche League in the US), or see a lactation consultant. They are great sources of support, information and encouragement.