Published on 18th May 2020

If your baby is sick, breastfeeding is one of the best things you can do to help your little one on their road to recovery (if you can – breastfeeding doesn’t work for everyone, and that’s okay). But the WHO guidelines encourage all moms to breastfeed exclusively for at least 6 months, so if you’re able to breastfeed for the first few months of your baby’s life or longer, they’ll benefit from the nutrients in breastmilk, especially if they’re sick.

Breast milk has many fantastic benefits, from its nutritionally-complete composition (which helps to form the baby’s microbiome for life) to the intimate bonding experience provided by every feeding session. Its most remarkable property, though, is often overlooked — breast milk can actually shield your baby from illnesses and infections.

In fact, your breast milk is so responsive to your baby’s needs, not only does the amount produced increase and decrease in response to your baby’s hunger and growth spurts, but it also reacts very quickly to your baby’s short-term needs if either of you falls sick. 

Should I breastfeed my sick baby?

In short, yes! Breast milk contains antibacterial and antiviral properties that can help reduce the risk of your baby getting colds, flu, ear and respiratory infections, sickness, and diarrhea, depending on the duration of breastfeeding. Not convinced? Well, what if we told you that researchers are even exploring the possibility of using breast milk to treat cancer?

Incredibly, if your baby falls ill, the composition of your breast milk adapts. When you’re exposed to an infection, your body immediately starts to produce antibodies to fight it. Handily, these bug-beating proteins are then passed on to your baby through your breast milk. The levels of leukocytes (immunity-boosting cells), also increase rapidly in the milk whenever your baby isn’t feeling well.

The bottom line? Breastfeeding a sick baby can be incredibly beneficial, and even if you’re also feeling sick, your little one stands to benefit from your immunity-boosting milk. 

What to eat when breastfeeding a sick baby

We all know that when you’re sick, it’s best to load up on nutritious, healthy foods. If your little one is feeling a little worse for wear, this is doubly important. The foods below will help to support your health and maintain the steady production of breast milk.

  • Fruits and vegetables: These are rich in vitamins and minerals that can boost your immunity and help you recover from illness. Try to eat fruits and vegetables of different colors every day — this way you’ll get a wide variety of different immunity-boosting nutrients

  • Lean protein: Choose lean protein sources such as chicken, fish, beans, and nuts to help maintain muscle mass and repair tissues.

  • Hydrating fluids: Drink plenty of water and try to limit caffeinated beverages such as tea, coffee, or carbonated drinks. 

  • Garlic and ginger: Both garlic and ginger are believed to have medicinal properties that can help boost the immune system.

Offering your baby a variety of foods will help to shape their future food acceptance habits. The flavor and texture of your breast milk will change based on what you’ve eaten recently, so don’t be afraid to mix things up — doing so may make the transition to solid foods easier when the time comes. 

Of course, there’s no guarantee that your baby will grow up to be the next Gordon Ramsay or Julia Child, but variety is the spice of life, so try to eat a wide range of foods wherever possible!

Remember — it's important to talk to a healthcare provider or a lactation consultant before taking any supplements or eating any special foods while breastfeeding. 

What if my baby is too sick to breastfeed properly?

If your baby is too unwell to breastfeed, consult a pediatrician or lactation specialist for appropriate care and guidance. It's also important to ensure that the baby is getting adequate rest and receiving any necessary medical treatment to recover from the illness.

Having some breast milk stored and ready to go in cases of emergency is always a good idea. This way, you can feed your baby from a bottle, cup, or even a syringe if feeding is particularly difficult. 

If you’re considering building up a stockpile of breast milk, try expressing at a time when you’d usually breastfeed. Thankfully, an electric breast pump can simplify the process of building up a milk supply. The Elvie Stride and Elvie Pump are wearable, wireless, and whisper-quiet, allowing you to pump hands-free wherever, whenever. 

How does breast milk change when your baby is sick?

One of the most fascinating features of breast milk is that not only does it change when the mother gets unwell, but it can also work in the other direction. This means when your baby is suffering from an infection, the breast milk can change its composition to respond to the baby’s needs and tailor its properties to help fight the microbes.

When your baby latches to the breast and begins feeding, this creates a miniature vacuum seal. Researchers suggest that the way your body responds to your baby's breastfeeding may be due to the transfer of saliva from the baby's mouth to the breast, which mixes with the milk inside. This is referred to as "retrograde milk flow".

One theory suggests that as the milk is ejected, the pressure in the milk duct increases, the ducts dilate, and breast milk flows toward the nipple. Once the pressure in these ducts decreases, the milk ducts will shrink down, causing the milk to flow backward (likely together with saliva from the baby's mouth). 

It’s thought that during this process, microorganisms from your baby’s saliva may be transferred back into the breast, stimulating an infection-fighting response in the milk. The mammary glands are filled with cells from your immune system to help to fight infection. These cells can then pass across to your baby and help them mount a response to the infection they’re fighting. Put simply, your breast milk is the ultimate superfood

Your breast milk is incredibly dynamic and responsive, so don’t be surprised if you notice changes in its color and consistency at different times. These changes could vary depending on:

  • The time since the last feed – depending on when you last fed, the milk fat content will be affected, as well as the volume of milk and how diluted it is.

  • The time of day – the fat content of the milk may be higher in the morning.

  • Baby’s weight and growth spurts – your baby may feed more frequently at times of growth, which can change the nutrient compositions depending on what is required.

Can I breastfeed when I’m sick?

It might not sound like the most appealing activity, but you should always try to continue with breastfeeding through an illness. When you’re sick, your body produces powerful antibodies which help to fight off the infection. These antibodies are transferred into your breast milk, allowing your baby to benefit from their immune-boosting effects.

Don’t just take our word for it — studies show that breastfed babies have a decreased likelihood of ear infections, diarrhea, respiratory infections, and meningitis, and improved protection against allergies, asthma, diabetes, obesity, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

How does breastfeeding help a sick baby?

Breastfeeding has so many incredible properties, the most impressive of which is something that can’t be replicated in any formula. This milk can help protect breastfeeding babies from infections in a number of ways; it contains antibodies and immune cells that you make whenever your body encounters a new infection such as a bacteria or virus. This means that you can pass the immunity to your baby so that if they encounter the same thing, their body is already equipped with the tools to fight it off.

Even in the longer term, breast milk can reduce the likelihood of your baby getting common infections in infancy such as colds and flu-like illnesses, ear and respiratory infections.

So, when you get unwell, it’s not only safe to continue to breastfeed, but you will likely pass on your antibodies to your baby and protect them from catching the same illness.

The medical information in this article is provided as an information resource only and is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes. Please consult your doctor for guidance about a specific medical condition. 

This article was updated on 02/03/23.