Illness in Mom & Breastfeeding

In most cases when a mother has an infectious disease, her baby has already been exposed to it, and the baby has already started receiving protective antibodies through the mother’s breast milk. There are very few cases in which a mother needs to stop breastfeeding, because breast milk protects a baby against illness.

Infectious Diseases

A contagious disease caused by a bacteria, fungus or virus. Some include: Chicken pox, malaria, influenza or hepatitis. 

In most cases breastfeeding can continue. Usually the baby has already been exposed to the illness. Weaning will decrease the baby’s protection from the disease, this is because antibodies are transferred to baby via the breast milk. 

It is always best to get a second opinion and to research your options before weaning due to an illness. Try to get advice from “breastfeeding friendly" doctors. 

Questions that a Mother should ask herself

  • Is there any evidence available that the specific disease can be passed through the breast milk?
  • If there is evidence in the milk, can babies who consume the breast milk become infected? For instance: Rubella and Hepatitis B are found in the milk, but babies who drink the milk do not contract the disease. HIV on the other hand, can be transmitted through the breast milk and can therefore infect the baby.
  • Does breast milk protect the baby from the specific disease? For example: A virus may be transferred to the baby via the breast milk, but the breast milk protects the baby from it. 
  • Do the benefits of immunity, nutritional benefits and emotional benefits of breastfeeding outweigh the risk of the disease? 
  • Are there treatments available for the disease in infants?
  • Is there a safer alternative to breastfeeding? Can she get safe donor milk? Can the mother afford to buy formula?
  • If the mother needs medication, are there safe medication alternatives while breastfeeding? 

Further Prevention of Infecting Baby

  • Wash hands frequently. 
  • Cover any infectious rashes or lesions. 
  • Try to avoid kissing your baby or allowing the baby to touch your face. 

During the Infectious Period

Sometimes, during an infectious period of certain diseases such as pulmonary tuberculosis, breastfeeding is not allowed, but expressed breast milk can be given to the baby by somebody other than the mother. This is possible, if the breast milk has been found to be uninfected.

In the case of adenovirus, diphtheria, respiratory infection, Haemophilus influenzae, influenza, mumps, mycoplasma, parvovirus, pertussis, pneumonic plague, rubella, pneumonia, or scarlet fever, the following precautions should be taken:

  • Using a mask.
  • Taking all standard above precautions.
  • Using a private room away from the baby.

Those suffering from infections such as E coli, rotavirus, hepatitis A, multidrug-resistant enterococci or staphylococci, cutaneous diphtheria, impetigo, herpes simplex virus infection, abscesses, and others, will need to take contact precautions such as:

  • Sleeping in a private room.
  • Using gloves and gowns
  • All other standard precautions

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)

HIV can be transmitted through breast milk, but this does not mean that all HIV mothers should avoid breastfeeding. 

HIV transmission risk factors

  • Mothers who are newly infected have a higher risk of passing the virus to the baby while breastfeeding.
  • HIV positive mothers who have an infection, are at higher risk of passing the virus to baby. 
  • Mothers who have a mastitis infection or open, cracked nipples are at higher risk.
  • Combination feeding with formula, other foods or liquids poses a much higher risk than exclusive breastfeeding. 
  • Mother and child should both be put on anti-retroviral drugs to reduce the risk of infection through breastfeeding. 
  • The longer the mother breastfeeds, the higher the risk of infection. 
  • Oral thrush in the baby can increase the risk of transmission of the virus to the baby. 

Read more about HIV and breastfeeding here

Illness in Mom
Human T-Cell Lymhotrophic Virus (HTLV)

T-cell Lymphotrophic virus is a retrovirus that infects the T-cell or T-Lymphcyte. Most people infected will never experience any illness related to this virus.

Those that do get sick usually suffer from Leukemi  joint inflammation or inflammation of the muscles, lungs, skin and eyes. 

HTLV is transmitted via sexual contact, blood, sharing of needles and from mother to baby in utero and through breastfeeding. 

Most advise that breastfeeding should be avoided all together. Although there is not enough research done on this. 

Top of illness in mom page

Tracy Behr, CBC, CLD (CBI)

Reference: Course information through Childbirth International on the physiology of breastfeeding / illness in Mom.

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