Breastfeeding Your Baby While Having  Stomach Flu

Breastfeeding Your Baby While Having Stomach Flu

Anyone would agree that getting sick is no walk in the park, especially if you’ve caught a nasty case of the stomach flu. While taking some time off for some much-needed R & R is in order, you will need some reassurance when breastfeeding your baby while having stomach flu.

With the right precautions such as thorough hand hygiene, food preparation, and sterilization of baby bottles and equipment there is no reason why you cannot continue breastfeeding your baby while having stomach flu. Stomach flu cannot be passed through breast milk. While awaiting an appointment with your physician, make sure to keep well hydrated with water or other oral hydration solutions to maintain electrolyte balance.

Contrary to popular misconception, the term “stomach flu” is actually a misnomer. The medically accurate name for the stomach flu is gastroenteritis. It is most often caused by viruses but can occasionally be caused by bacteria. A couple of viruses that commonly cause stomach flu are the norovirus and rotavirus.

If you have been confirmed to have the stomach flu, you will not only be concerned with your health but also about spreading the infection to other members of your household. When breastfeeding your baby, you may be especially worried and understandably so. 

Infants whether breastfed or not and young children get hit harder with infections including stomach flu and are at risk of more severe complications if left untreated. Vaccination against rotavirus is routine for young children. However, there is no available vaccine against norovirus. Mothers who are immunized also do not pass on the immunity to viruses in utero or passively through breast milk. 

What to do when you have the stomach flu

Catching one of the stomach flu bugs is relatively common, so consider yourself exceptionally lucky if you’ve never gotten sick! If this is your first time experiencing or suspecting an episode of gastroenteritis, you may not know what to expect or how to handle it. 

A typical bout of the stomach flu lasts for a couple of days to a week with episodes of cramping, diarrhea, vomiting, and fever. You may not experience all of these symptoms, or you may have others. Some of these symptoms may be similar to other diseases and conditions such as morning sickness, food poisoning, lactose intolerance, or premenstrual syndrome (PMS).

A timely and proper diagnosis from your physician is essential to pinpoint the cause of your symptoms. If you are experiencing diarrhea or vomiting with a fever and have potentially been exposed to either of the viruses, it may be safe to assume you have stomach flu or gastroenteritis. While waiting for a consultation, replenishing your fluids and electrolytes with water and oral rehydration solutions is essential to prevent dehydration.

Norovirus vs. rotavirus vs. bacterial infections

As previously mentioned, the two most common pathogens that cause gastroenteritis, or the stomach flu, are viruses called norovirus and rotavirus. Without getting too into the nitty-gritty of microbiology, this table gives you a quick guide on the causes of some of the symptoms you may be experiencing:

Characteristics
NorovirusRotavirusBacteria
Other names (s)Stomach bug, winter vomiting bugRotavirus A(the most common species)Different species of bacteria:E. coliS. aureusB. cereusSalmonellaC. botulinumVibrioCampylobacterListeria
Onset of illness12-48 hours24-48 hours<10 hours to >5 days (depending on the bacteria)
Duration of illness1-3 days4-8 days2 days to <2 weeks
TransmissionFecal-oral routeContaminated surfacesAerosol of vomitFecal-oral routeContaminated surfacesFecal-oral routeContaminated food
Sources of contaminationUnwashed handsImproperly cleaned fruits and vegetablesRaw and undercooked meat and seafoodUnpasteurized milkContaminated water
Treatment optionsSupportive treatment for symptomsSupportive treatment
Vaccine (RotaTeq®, Rotarix®)
Antibiotics
Other notesMore common in children
Immunity developed after exposure
More common in children
Immunity developed after exposure/ vaccine
Common in any age group
No immunity developed after exposure/ treatment
Signs & Symptoms
NorovirusRotavirusBacteria
FeverLow-gradeLow-gradeLow-to-high grade
NauseaVery commonCommonVery common
VomitingVery commonVery commonCommon
DiarrheaVery commonVery commonVery common(maybe bloody)
CrampingLess commonLess commonCommon
RashesNoNoPossible, especially with salmonella poisoning
WeaknessIf dehydration is severeIf dehydration is severeCommon
Body malaiseCommonLess commonCommon

Can I breastfeed my baby while I have the stomach flu?

While sick, you may not have much of an appetite even for your favorite foods. However, your little one won’t be able to adjust his or her feeding pattern just because you’re sick.

Fortunately, if you have already been breastfeeding your child or plan to start, the stomach flu won’t be throwing a monkey wrench into your plans. Breastfeeding is encouraged to strengthen your baby’s immune system, which can protect him or her from various infections.

If you don’t feel comfortable nursing your baby or feel too ill, it is possible to use stored breast milk or formula for the few days that you are sick. You can resume normal breastfeeding as soon as you are feeling better. However, you will need to either pump or hand express breastmilk to relieve any discomfort and to maintain your supply.

Can a stomach bug be passed through breast milk?

Good news! While some germs and medications can pass into breast milk, the vast majority of illnesses and treatments still allow mothers to nurse and pump breast milk safely.

The stomach bugs do not pass into breast milk while your baby feeds. However, it is still possible to transmit the virus or bacteria to your child through other means. The primary mode of transmission of stomach flu viruses is through the fecal-oral route. This means touching surfaces and touching your mouth or consuming food that has been contaminated with infected fecal matter.

If your hands have been contaminated and you touch your breast or feeding bottle that your baby will subsequently drink from, there is a chance that he or she will be infected. 

What can I take for the stomach flu while breastfeeding?

Before taking any medications, you need to consult your physician for an accurate diagnosis. Your doctor will be able to determine if the cause of the stomach flu is viral or bacterial in nature and decide the proper treatment to give you.

Water and oral rehydration solutions are usually enough to replenish fluids and electrolytes lost through episodes of diarrhea and vomiting. Your doctor may also prescribe medications to control your fever and body pain, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol®). In the case where bacteria has caused your upset stomach, your doctor will then prescribe you an appropriate antibiotic.

Viral infections are self-limiting, so the main goals of therapy are to prevent dehydration and to spread the infection. In addition, anti-diarrheal agents are not recommended as they may cause a build-up of toxins in the gastrointestinal tract, which can worsen symptoms.

Tips for breastfeeding your baby while you have the stomach flu

Your baby’s feeding pattern won’t change much while you’re sick, and thankfully most cases of the stomach flu are mild and resolve quickly. Some tips to safely continue breastfeeding while down with the sickness are:

Always wash your hands properly

Thorough hand hygiene will largely prevent the spread of bacteria and viruses which can potentially result in you becoming unwell with conditions such as stomach flu. Wash your hands for a minimum of twenty seconds with soap and clean, running water. If you are in a place without soap and water, you can use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Just be sure that it contains at least 70% alcohol. 

Avoid handling food

You might be the main cook in the house; however, while you’re carrying the virus, there is a high chance of spreading it to other people in your home. If possible, it would be best to pass on the cooking and cleaning duties to someone else in the family. 

Sterilize baby bottles and pacifiers

If you use stored breast milk to feed your baby, it would be wise to wash and sterilize them immediately after each use. Having multiple bottles and rubber nipples will make it easier and more convenient. 

Other objects like toys should be disinfected regularly, before and after your children play with them. Infants and children tend to put things in their mouths as well as touch dirty surfaces. The spread of rotavirus is especially dangerous in this age group.

Keep tabs on your family members’ health

Because rotavirus and norovirus infections are highly contagious when one person in the family gets infected, there is a great chance of others in the household will become infected.

If you have school-aged children, be sure to have them fully immunized to protect them from infections from rotaviruses as well as other childhood diseases that can quickly spread. Outbreaks are frequent in crowded settings, such as classrooms and daycare centers.

What if my breastfed baby catches the stomach flu?

Although you can safely continue breastfeeding your baby while having stomach flu, there is still a chance of viral transmission from you to your baby through other ways.

In the case that your baby starts showing signs of an infection, particularly a fever with vomiting or diarrhea, it is crucial to seek medical attention right away. Because infants are smaller and have higher body water content, even a short episode of the stomach flu can cause severe dehydration, potentially resulting in your breastfed infant becoming very unwell.

Signs of dehydration in babies include lethargy, irritability, dry mouth, crying without tears, decreased urination, and sunken fontanelles (soft spot on the head). Because young infants cannot communicate their feelings directly, taking them to a pediatrician is necessary for determining the cause of symptoms.

References

CDC. (2019, April 5). Norovirus. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/norovirus/index.html

CDC. (2019, November 5). Rotavirus. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/rotavirus/index.html

CDC. (2020, February 18). Food Poisoning Symptoms. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/symptoms.html

Fight BAC. (2019, December 3). Causes and Symptoms of Foodborne Illness. Retrieved from https://www.fightbac.org/food-poisoning/causes-symptoms/

Higuera, V. (2017, December 21). Stomach flu: Symptoms, causes, and home remedies. Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/310481

Horsager-Boehrer, R. (2018, January 2). Should pregnant moms be concerned about gastroenteritis?: Your Pregnancy Matters: UT Southwestern Medical Center. Retrieved from https://utswmed.org/medblog/gastroenteritis-norovirus-stomach-flu/

Mayo Clinic. (2018, October 16). Viral gastroenteritis (stomach flu). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/viral-gastroenteritis/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20378852

Schroeder, M. O. (2019, December 19). Norovirus, Rotavirus or Stomach Flu: What’s the Difference? Retrieved from https://health.usnews.com/conditions/norovirus/articles/rotavirus-vs-norovirus

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