Should you still breastfeed when you have gastroenteritis?

Midwife, Bel Moore, sheds light on what to do if you get struck down with gastroenteritis while you are breastfeeding.

Gastroenteritis or ‘gastro’ is a common illness affecting the gastrointestinal system, which can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, stomach cramps and fever.

Mother breast feeding her baby
Source: iStock

Can you still breastfeed when you have gastroenteritis?

It can be caused by viruses such as rotavirus (which is why babies are vaccinated against it from two months), bacteria like salmonella– usually found in contaminated water or food.

Gastroenteritis usually only lasts 24-72 hours depending on the cause, but can take a big toll on your body, especially if you get dehydrated. 

As mothers we know life must go on even if we’re sick, and breastfeeding doesn’t have to stop due to a gastro virus/infection. It is important for your supply to continue to feed throughout the outbreak and also beneficial for your baby, although you may need to make a few short-term changes to make it possible.  

Breastfeeding for little beautiful newborn baby with closed eyes - indoors
Source: iStock

Tips To Get Through The Poo-ey Times 

The most important treatment of gastro is hydration. Frequent small sips of water or rehydration fluids can help keep your fluid levels up and avoid the dreading dehydration. Even crunching on ice chips can ensure you are getting some fluid in.

If you can’t tolerate any water, a trip to hospital for IV fluids may be in order.

Make sure you tell the hospital you are breastfeeding and see how they can accommodate for this. Some hospitals will allow your baby to “board” with you to ensure they are able to be continue being fed, others will require your baby to be brought to you for feeds. If you wish to pump during your stay, they may be able to lend you a pump. 

Premature baby born at 25th week of pregnancy sleeping during the kangaroo care session in hospital. Genuine emotions, real scene. Natural light.
Source: iStock
  • Rest as much as possible. Make a floor bed with everything you need, bucket, water, towels, child’s toys, etc. A day of ABC kids won’t do anyone any harm and will give you time to recuperate.  
  • Pump often. If you’re feeling too unwell to breastfeed, pumping at the times you would usually feed will maintain supply. Another caregiver can give your baby or child the expressed milk in a bottle or cup. There is no virus/infection in the milk, so it’s perfectly safe for baby to drink and others to handle. 
  • Any shortage of milk should only be temporary. Any drop in supply will be temporary, once you are rehydrated and feeding normally again, your supply will bounce back and regulate to your baby’s needs.
  • Sharing isn’t caring. Stop the spread! Wash hands carefully with soap and water after going to the toilet, changing nappies and before touching any food. Clean and disinfect contaminated surfaces using a bleach-based household cleaner. Wash all contaminated laundry thoroughly. Stay away from work, school, childcare etc. until 24 hours after symptoms resolve. 
  • Try the BRAT diet once you have stopped vomiting and you’re able to keep down fluids. The BRAT diet is super bland and consists of Bananas, Rice, Apple sauce, and Toast. The BRAT diet won’t irritate your stomach, your stools will be firmer due to the binding nature of the foods and it can help replace nutrients your body needs such as potassium.
Breastfeeding a cute newborn baby boy.
Source: iStock

What If Your Breastfed Child Gets It?

The antibodies and white blood cells found in breast milk help to protect babies and children from many different illnesses.

For instance, when you’re exposed to an infection, your immune system produces antibodies to fight off the infection, these then pass through your milk and on to the baby, making it less likely for them to get sick or if are unfortunate enough to catch it will be less severe. 

Frequent breastfeeds will help ensure that any fluid lost from diarrhoea or vomiting will be replaced. If they are over six months of age, small amounts of water can also be offered if they are not interested in breastfeeding.

Female pediatrician uses a stethoscope to listen to newborn baby's lungs. The baby's mother is cradling the baby. The mother and pediatrician are seen from the neck down.
Source: iStock

If they become upset when unwell, skin-to-skin contact and a warm shower together can do wonders. If baby is clingy and not wanting to be put down, try baby wearing, you’ll find they sleep longer in the carrier or wrap and you might be able to get some of the washing done! 

Babies and small children can become dehydrated quickly and a call to the home doctor/health line may be necessary to assess if they need to be hospitalised (especially if they are under six months of age). 

Signs Of Dehydration In Babies And Children Can Include: 

  • Sunken eyes or anterior fontanels (the gap between bones in the skull at the front of babies head present till about 18 months) 
  • Lethargy
  • Dry mouth and tongue
  • Passing little to no urine (less than five nappies a day) 
Close up of a mother with her eight months old baby boy sleeping in her arms. Photographed with a Canon 5D Mark II and developed from raw file.
Source: iStock

There Is No Vaccine To Prevent Gastro, So The Best Ways To Avoid Catching It Is: 

  • Good hand hygiene.
  • Use paper towel instead of cloth towels.
  • Do not handle raw and cooked foods with the same implements (tongs, knives, cutting boards), unless they have been thoroughly washed between uses. Keep all kitchen surfaces and equipment clean.
  • Keep cold food cold (below 5 °C) and hot food hot (above 60 °C) to discourage the growth of bacteria.
  • Make sure foods are thoroughly cooked.
  • Clean the toilet and bathroom regularly, especially the toilet seat, door handles and taps.
  • When travelling overseas to countries where sanitation is suspect, only drink bottled water. Avoid food buffets, uncooked foods or peeled fruits and vegetables, and ice in drinks.

If you have any other questions and or concerns regarding breastfeeding and gastro – be sure to chat with your healthcare practitioner.

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