Cold and flu season is never fun. But cold and flu season during the Covid-19 pandemic? Families are taking more precautions than ever to keep their little ones (and themselves) healthy during this time.
But breastfeeding moms can take comfort: Breast milk is more than gold-star nutrition. It’s a fantastic source of immune-system support for both baby and mama.
How Breastfeeding Helps Keep Your Baby Healthy
Breast milk is a powerhouse for our babies’ health, but one area where it truly shines is through immune system support. Breast milk is full of antibodies—immunoglobulins—that help fight infections.
A study in 2013 discovered that approximately 70% of colostrum cells are leukocyte white blood cells. These are the cells that produce immunoglobulins. Once a few rounds of colostrum are made, leukocyte levels drop down to 2%...until mom or baby gets sick. If this happens, leukocyte counts in breast milk leap up to as high as 94%!
One of the most critical immunoglobulins produced by white blood cells is secretory immunoglobulin A (SIgA). SIgA coats internal organs and digestive, respiratory, and reproductive tract linings to protect your baby. Newborns get a big boost of SIga through colostrum, but breast milk retains its value throughout your entire breastfeeding journey.
These antibodies don’t just respond to illnesses that mom and baby encounter during their breastfeeding journey. Breast milk provides immunity to illnesses mothers have before having their baby.
Breast milk continually adapts and changes to both mama and baby by reading their shared environment. You can actually see the difference between breast milk before and during an illness. Take, for example, the popular post by Mallory Smothers, a mom whose viral pic of her breast milk shows the stark difference between milk before and during her baby's illness.
The immune-system support provided by breast milk lasts a long time. Studies have found that adults who were breastfed as infants experience lower rates of asthma and allergies. Why? It’s suspected that the short-chain fatty acids in breast milk form a durable lining in infants’ colons and create a more robust immune system function.
Answers to Common Breastfeeding Mama Worries During Cold and Flu Season
Should I Breastfeed If I Have the Flu or a Cold?
Absolutely. Breastfeeding through an illness provides your baby with important antibodies, boosting their immune system and preventing disease. If you’re too ill to nurse, pumping can offer the same benefits.
Does My Baby Still Get the Same Benefits if I Exclusively Pump?
Exclusively pumping moms are often concerned that their babies won’t get the same breastfeeding benefits. One particular question arises around the immune system benefit from the biochemical exchange that occurs when a baby latches onto the breast. Because of the immune system information encoded in a baby’s saliva, a nursing mother’s body can produce breast milk that’s tailored precisely to her baby’s needs.
This is a beautiful bit of biology, but it’s not the last word. You know that irresistible urge you have to cover your baby with kisses? This kind of contact helps your body sample the pathogens on their skin, which then your lymphatic system translates into antibodies.
And keep in mind that even a little bit of breast milk provides enormous benefits to your baby. One tiny teaspoon of breastmilk contains more than three million germ-fighting cells; each drop contains approximately one million white blood cells.
Can a Cold, the Flu, or Covid Pass Through Breast Milk?
Colds, the flu, and other viruses don’t pass through breast milk, meaning it’s the safest, healthiest thing that you can feed your baby during an illness. However, there are some more serious diseases—HIV, HTLV-1, or brucellosis—that can pass via breast milk. If you’re concerned about exposure to these diseases, talk with your healthcare provider immediately.
What About Breastfeeding and Covid-19?
Covid-19 can be a worrying diagnosis for you and your family, but rest assured: It’s still possible to safely continue breastfeeding even if you’re symptomatic. Here are the steps you should take.
The Good News
Breastfeeding, whether nursing or with expressed milk, is safe for your baby even if you have Covid. But like with the cold or the flu, there are no indications that Covid passes through breast milk and the antibodies in breast milk continue to provide critical support for a baby’s developing immune system.
In fact, the World Health Organization strongly encourages mothers to breastfeed, finding that the benefits of breastfeeding far outweigh the risks of transmission even when the mother has a confirmed case of the coronavirus. Moreover, research is taking place on whether the critical SIga might help confer immunity, particularly for newborns with developing immune systems. One study, in particular, has found evidence of immune compounds in breast milk that responded to Covid-19...even when the mother was never infected with Covid.
Note: Illness can cause dips in supply. Make sure to keep hydrated and nurse or pump regularly.
If you’re well enough, you can continue to care for and breastfeed your child as long as you take the appropriate precautions. This means:
- Wear a mask when you’re within 6 feet of your baby or any other household members.
- Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before touching your baby, nursing, or bottle feeding them. If you don’t have soap and water, use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
Under no circumstances should you put a mask on a baby, though. Masks are only recommended for children two and older.
What About Introducing My Family to My Baby?
One of the hardships of the pandemic has been the restrictions on interacting with family due to safety concerns. This is doubly so when new babies join families. Everyone from grandparents to cousins to longtime friends have been excited to greet your little one. Is it safe, though?
Currently, the CDC recommends avoiding gathering with people outside your household whether you have Covid-19 or not. That means anyone who doesn’t live with you, even if they’re close family members. If you do decide to gather to make introductions, ask visitors to stay home if they’re sick, wear a mask, wash their hands, and stay 6 feet away.
How Do I Keep My Baby From Getting Sick?
Caring for a baby is incredibly hands-on, so keeping them from getting sick when you’ve got a cold, the flu, or Covid can seem daunting. But you can do it! Take these precautions to keep your germs to yourself.
- Enlist help from your partner or other family members to help care for your baby. Diapering, playtime, bath time, feeding, you name it—you need rest and your baby will benefit from bonding time with others.
- Keep surface areas around you clean. This especially includes your pump and any pumping equipment that you use.
- Change clothing before holding your baby
- Take care when you are around your baby. Wear a mask and wash your hands after you cough or sneeze.
- Make sure you, your household, and any caregivers get the flu vaccine. It’s one of the easiest steps you can take to keep your entire family healthy. The flu vaccine protects your baby before they’re born and until they’re six months old. (The age at which they can get the vaccine themselves.)
- Pay close attention to your child’s health. Fever protocol varies depending on your baby's age. Contact their doctor if they are:
- Younger than three months and have ANY fever
- 3-6 months old and have a fever over 102 degrees
- 6-24 months old and have a fever over 102 degrees lasting more than a day
Contact their doctor if they show decreased food or fluid intake (including breast milk) or act lethargic.
Is it Safe to Take Medicine When Breastfeeding?
Many breastfeeding mothers power through the symptoms of illness because they worry about what passes into breast milk. However, lots—though not all—of over-the-counter medications are safe for breastfed babies. Common ones include:
- Acetaminophen (Tylenol)
- Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
- Antihistamines such as Claritin. Benadryl is safe but can cause infant drowsiness.
- Decongestants such as Afrin or Allegra
- Avoid pseudoephedrine, though, as it often decreases milk supply
- Some antivirals, such as Tamiflu.
Always check with your doctor before taking a medication to make sure it’s breastfeeding-safe.
Cold and flu season, not to mention Covid-19, can be daunting with a baby, but breastfeeding can help keep everyone healthier. Take care, use good health and safety practices, and stay in touch with your doctor if you or your little one are feeling under the weather.