Is The Flu Contagious Through Breast Milk? Science Is Warning Ill Moms
Breastfeeding was truly one of the gifts of my life, even though I'm not someone who claims to be team "lactivist" or team "fed is best." Mostly, I was just happy to be able to do it, and let the rest of the world make their own decisions regarding the practice. However, I've always believed in the almost magical nature of the liquid gold. To the point where in 2009, I did breastfeed my own son while I had the flu, assuming that was what was best. But was it? Is the flu contagious through breast milk?
Romper confirmed with a CDC spokesperson that their recommendation on their website (first posted in 2011 and updated January 2018), is up to date, and that their official recommendation is that breastfeeding mothers with the flu should temporarily suspend their breastfeeding and either feed their babies pumped milk, frozen milk, or they should consider formula feeding for the duration. This is not only because breast milk can transmit the virus, but also because the constant interaction between infected mother and child is dangerous to both. This is based on research going back as far as 2011, but with this year's potentially deadly flu, they thought it bore repeating.
I know, it seems shocking and counterintuitive. It's shocking to the point that I chalked it up with the CDC's admonition to all women of childbearing age and capability to abstain from alcohol or sex. It seemed like it could be politically motivated or an overreach. I mean, it's a government entity. There's just no way we're all going to agree on their recommendations or their assurances, that's simply the nature of the beast.
To be fair, prior to the current CDC recommendation, other women's health studies pointed to the benefits of nursing for flu patients. The theory concluded that the protective elements and benefits of breast milk far outweighed any risk that may exist due to flu involvement — it was near a consensus amongst microbiologists and across the literature. Even some states still advocate for breastfeeding through the flu and treatment. Chances are, if you know a mom who's breastfed through the flu, you know someone who'd sing its praises.
However, the recent data collected from hospitals which examines cases of infant mortality, readmission, and maternal mortality paint a different story. It's not always the case that the golden milk of motherhood is such a panacea against deadly strains of viruses. It can be just the opposite — for mother and for the child.
Is it possible? Can a baby get the flu from breast milk? Not only can a baby get the flu from breast milk, you can get the flu from your baby from breastfeeding, suggested a recent study. It does happen that a baby can get the flu virus while the mother remains untouched. It's rare, but it happens. A study published in 2015 looked at the pathogenesis of infection in the reverse dyad between baby and mother and found that there is a significant link between mothers and their infants when the child has the flu and mother does not. It would suggest that pumping and feeding fresh milk is the best option in these cases.
The reverse seems trickier absent of a large freezer selection of breast milk, given the body's reaction to a quick dip in feeding habits, but according to the CDC, it's worth it -- if just temporarily.
If you're concerned with supply, this is one case where pumping and dumping might behoove you, as per the CDC's recommendations. No, the milk isn't being used for food, but it is maintaining your supply, and that's huge. There's nothing about flu that isn't a giant pain, and this is very emblematic of that truth. Thankfully, the flu is temporary, and you can get back to nursing in no time.
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that the CDC released a new set of guidelines in response to the 2017-18 flu epidemic. This post has also been updated to clarify that breast milk expressed by mothers with the flu is safe for babies, according to the CDC.
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