Can I breastfeed if I am sick?

Despite being sick with a cold or flu, breastfeeding mothers can and should continue to breastfeed. In fact, breastfeeding is one of the best things a mother can do to keep her baby from getting sick. Most disease-causing bacteria and viruses are in your body for several days before actual symptoms appear. By the time a mother is diagnosed with an illness, her baby has already been exposed, so separating mothers and babies gives no added protection. On the contrary, mothers produce antibodies (special proteins that fight infection) in response to the disease-causing organisms and transfer these antibodies through their milk to their babies, thereby reducing their babies’ risk for infection

Many breastfeeding moms wonder if they can take medication while they are sick. The short answer is “yes.” However, many health care providers, opting to err on the side of caution, often advise mothers to stop breastfeeding or to “pump and dump” (discard) their breast milk while taking medication. This advice may be well-meaning but it is incorrect, based on an abundance of data showing that most (albeit not all) medications are safe to take while breastfeeding. 

A “Clinical Report” from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) notes that the “benefits of breastfeeding outweigh the risk of exposure to most therapeutic agents via human milk.” Mothers who are told to discontinue breastfeeding until they have completed their regimen of medication may want to ask their physician to consult LactMed, a comprehensive online database of drug information, or one of several other sources (get a complete list here), such as the InfantRisk Center (available for free phone consultation), before making recommendations about which medications are safe to take while breastfeeding.

Fortunately, the list of illnesses that require that a mother stop breastfeeding is short. According to the U.S. Office of Women’s Health, breastfeeding is not advised for U.S. mothers with the following conditions and/or under the following circumstances:

  • HIV infection or AIDS 
  • HTLV infection 
  • Active tuberculosis (mothers can resume breastfeeding once they have been treated) 
  • Undergoing cancer treatment (chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy) 
  • Taking antiretroviral drugs

If your treatment plan requires that you temporarily stop breastfeeding, you will need to express your milk (manually or with a pump) until your treatment ends. Ideally, you would express your milk as often as your baby would breastfeed or whenever your breasts feel full (but at least 6 times a day). You will need to discard any expressed milk and feed your baby milk stored in your freezer prior to the start of treatment, donor milk, or infant formula. 

For more specifics on breastfeeding if you have the flu, read this.

Last updated July 14, 2018

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