Sick babies

Can I breastfeed if my baby is sick?

If a baby is sick but can breastfeed effectively, mothers should keep breastfeeding unless health-care providers give a specific reason not to. Breast milk is nearly always the best nutrition for the baby; it helps fight infection and speeds healing. Breastfeeding calms the baby and relieves pain. Mothers who stop breastfeeding and express when their babies are sick may not express well and may develop a low milk supply, mastitis, and other problems. The baby may be unwilling to return to the breast after a period of not breastfeeding. Mothers can help a sick baby breastfeed by using supportive breastfeeding holds. If the baby cannot breastfeed well, mothers can express for every feed to provide milk supplements. This will prevent the breasts from becoming overfull and maintain the milk supply. It is important to ensure that the baby takes in enough milk. Mothers can supplement with appropriate milk if required.

A) The sick baby

A sick baby may:

Some signs that a baby is sick include:

  • Spitting that:
    • Started before two weeks of age or after six months of age
    • Persists after 18 months of age
  • Frequent, yellow, or bloody vomiting
  • Frequent or bloody diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Being excessively sleepy
  • Having seizures or being very limp
  • Crying that is not normal
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Refusing to eat
  • Weight loss
  • Painful peeing

B) Reasons to continue breastfeeding when a baby is sick

Some mothers are told that breastfeeding is harder or more stressful for the baby than bottle-feeding, but research does not support this (Marino 1995; Mizuno 2006).

Discuss your baby’s case with your health-care providers. In general, if the baby can breastfeed, you should keep breastfeeding unless there is a specific reason not to. That’s because:

These benefits are especially important for babies who are hospitalized or need surgery.


  • Mothers who do not breastfeed when their babies are sick and who only express, may not express effectively and as a result may develop a variety of problems and their milk supply may decrease.
  • The baby having become used to other feeding tools such as bottles, may be unwilling to resume breastfeeding.

C) Tools to support breastfeeding when a baby is sick

Babies who are sick are less likely to be breastfed (Reinheimer 2019). Breastfeeding specialists can be very helpful in this situation. The following can help support breastfeeding. 

1) Breastfeed

If your baby is sick but breastfeeding effectively, continue to breastfeed. You can help your baby by using supportive breastfeeding holds such as the laid-back hold. 

2) Expressing

Mothers should express regularly if their babies:

  • Have a reduced appetite because of illness and do not want to take in their regular amounts of milk.
  • Are unable to take in enough milk by breastfeeding.
  • Are unable to breastfeed.

Expressing can help to:

3) Assessing milk amounts

Slow growing babies may

  • Have mothers with a low milk supply.
  • Have breastfeeding challenges.
  • Be sick. 

To help identify and treat the problem and to supplement the right amounts of milk, it may be important to know how much milk the mother is making and how much milk the baby is taking in by breastfeeding. The relevant tools include: 

  • Expressing instead of breastfeeding to measure the mother's milk supply. 
  • Expressing after feeds to show how much milk the baby is leaving in the breast.
  • Before-feed and after-feed weights to show how much milk the baby is taking from the breast.

4) Other tools

Some babies have feeding problems and need further specialized assessment and testing (Willette 2016). Knowing what is wrong with the baby can explain why breastfeeding may not be going well and provide solutions. 

D) Infections

If your child has an infection, breast milk is the best medicine. The infection in the baby quickly increases the number of white blood cells in your breast milk to help fight the infection (Hassiotou 2013).

For babies with stomach flu caused by a virus, breast milk helps heal the bowel and rehydrate the baby. Unless the baby is significantly dehydrated, there is no need to give other liquids if you have enough breast milk. Very dehydrated babies may require additional fluids given by mouth or through a needle into a vein (IV treatment).

E) Chronic conditions

Families with special-needs children or children with chronic conditions often face many challenges and caregivers may be severely stressed (Golfenshtein 2019). Breast milk can optimize the baby’s health and and prevent or minimize other problems (Penn 2016).

Examples of chronic conditions include:

  • Abnormal hearts (i.e. congenital [born with] heart problems)
  • Genetic syndromes such as Down syndrome
  • Cancer
  • Cleft palate
  • Type 1 diabetes (Miller 2017)

Once stabilized, these babies may be able to breastfeed exclusively, partially, or not at all. It depends on the nature of the condition. If not, mothers are encouraged to express milk for their baby’s milk supplement.

Babies born with congenital heart disease who receive only human milk are at a lower risk of developing necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), a severe bowel condition, and gain weight better (Davis 2019). They may be able to breastfeed (Barbas 2004; Tandberg 2010). It is important to monitor their growth closely, supplement appropriately, and get the support of a qualified health-care provider (Elgersma 2020; Mangili 2018). Before-and-after weights can be helpful (Gregory 2018).

Similarly, babies with poor muscle tone, such as those with Down syndrome, can breastfeed but require close monitoring (Thomas 2016). 

Chemotherapy puts children at very high risk of infection and disrupts the bacteria in the gut (microbiome). Breastfeeding can reduce the risk of these. Children who are undergoing bone marrow transplantation have been shown to have fewer infections and fewer reactions to their new bone marrow when given breast milk (Davies 2018).


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