When a member of the family is unwell, it can be a stressful time for the whole family.
This is especially true if it’s the youngest family member who is sick.
Common illnesses that can strike families include respiratory illnesses (e.g. the common cold) and gastroenteritis.
Babies who are not breastfed are more likely to get sick than babies who are breastfed.
This is because formula lacks the immune protective factors (e.g. antibodies) contained in breastmilk.
Exclusive breastfeeding (meaning no other liquids or solids are given, not even water) for the first 6 months of your baby’s life is his most important protection from illness.
Nonetheless, breastmilk is not magic. It cannot always prevent illness. When a breastfed baby does get sick, he needs to breastfeed more, not less. Not only can breastfeeding provide a sick baby with factors to help him get better faster and keep him well hydrated, it can also provide an important source of comfort.
Here is some information to help a breastfed baby who is sick with diarrhoea, vomiting or nasal congestion.
Diarrhoea And Vomiting
If your baby has diarrhoea or is vomiting, you might worry about whether you can continue to breastfeed him. You might have been told dairy products shouldn’t be given in a case of tummy upset. Regardless of whether or not there is any truth to this, breastmilk is not a dairy food. In the words of Dr Stephen Buescher (an infectious disease specialist), human milk is not just food, “it is a highly specialised infant support system.”
If your breastfed baby has gastroenteritis, continuing to breastfeed is the most important treatment. Most babies will recover with breastfeeding alone and won’t require additional fluids such as oral electrolyte solutions. Oral rehydration solutions are more often needed for formula-fed babies with vomiting or diarrhoea.
Breastmilk is easily and rapidly digested, so even if your baby vomits or has diarrhoea soon after breastfeeding, he would have digested some of the nutrients. Oral electrolyte solutions offer little nutritional value and contain none of the anti-infective factors contained in breastmilk.
When your breastfed baby is sick, offer more frequent breastfeeds. This will reduce the volume he drinks at any one time will therefore reduce the amount that might come back up again.
Normal Breastfed Baby Poos
It’s helpful to know what is normal in terms of a breastfed baby’s poos. Otherwise, you might think your breastfed baby has diarrhoea when in fact what you are seeing could actually be perfectly normal.
It is normal for breastfed babies to have frequent runny yellowish mustard coloured (occasionally greenish) poos. You can read more about baby’s poos here. If your baby suddenly starts pooing a lot more often than usual, his poos are foul-smelling and he has a temperature, he could have diarrhoea (e.g. due to gastroenteritis).
Sometimes, a breastfed baby’s loose poos might be temporarily even looser (e.g. due to the mother’s use of antibiotics, or after the rotavirus vaccine).
Occasionally, a breastfed baby who is sensitive to a certain food might react (e.g. with looser poos or with vomiting) if his mother eats the offending food. Babies with a sensitivity to cows’ milk protein sometimes react quite strongly with vomiting and diarrhoea if they are given a bottle of formula.
A sickness that causes diarrhoea (e.g. gastroenteritis) can irritate the gut and bring about secondary lactose intolerance. When the cause is removed (i.e. the baby recovers from the gastroenteritis), his gut will heal, especially if he continues to be breastfed.
Read more about lactose intolerance.
If your baby has a cold with nasal congestion, it can sometimes be hard for him to coordinate breathing and sucking while breastfeeding. If this happens, the following points might help:
- Keep your baby as upright as possible while breastfeeding
- Breastfeed more often to ensure he gets plenty of breastmilk. It will also mean he might breastfeed for shorter times, which can help, especially if he is having trouble coordinating breathing and sucking while breastfeeding
- A few drops of saline solution (or breastmilk) placed in each of your baby’s nostrils, with a rubber suction bulb, will help clear his nose before breastfeeds
- A vaporiser or humidifier, used in the room where the baby sleeps, will help to clear your baby’s nose
- Some mothers find breastfeeding in a steamy bathroom also helps
- Carry your baby in an upright position (e.g. in a sling or carrier) before breastfeeds; this will help drain mucus from his nose
If your baby’s nasal congestion is so bad he cannot suck effectively, you might need to express, and feed him with a spoon or small cup.
Again, you might have been told to stop breastfeeding if your baby has a respiratory infection, because dairy products increase mucus production. Firstly, there is no evidence that milk increases mucus production (unless of course the person is sensitive to cows’ milk protein) and secondly, breastmilk is not a dairy product.
What If Your Baby Refuses To Breastfeed?
Your baby might refuse to breastfeed when sick, especially if his ears or throat hurts. If this happens, he will return to breastfeeding once he feels better, but meanwhile, it can be an extremely stressful experience. Keep trying to offer (not force) feeds often (e.g. hourly) and try different breastfeeding positions.
Here are some additional things to try if your baby is refusing to breastfeed:
- Feed him your expressed milk (e.g. from a small cup or spoon)
- For a baby older than 6 months who will eat solids but is refusing to breastfeed, you can express and add your breastmilk to the solids
Find out more information about breast refusal.
It can be a stressful time caring for a sick baby. Regardless of the reason your baby is unwell, it’s always important to seek medical advice. While he recovers, breastfeeding continues to be important, and can help him get better faster.