Diarrhea is an unpleasant experience that almost everyone endures from time to time. Breastfeeding mothers experiencing diarrhea may fear infecting their babies and worry about whether it is safe to continue breastfeeding while sick. Fortunately, diarrhea usually goes away on its own in a few days with simple home-care measures, and continuing to breastfeed may actually protect your baby from contracting infectious causes of diarrhea.
Diarrhea is very common and occurs for a variety of reasons. In the weeks after giving birth, diarrhea may be due to taking laxatives to relieve postpartum constipation. The stresses of having a newborn might also be a factor. Neither of these common causes of diarrhea pose a problem in terms of continuing to breastfeed your baby. Breastfeeding moms can also develop infectious gastroenteritis, the most common cause of sporadic diarrhea among adults. Most cases are viral, although bacteria and parasites can also cause gastroenteritis. The organisms responsible for infectious gastroenteritis cannot be passed to your baby through breast milk. Therefore, you need not worry that breastfeeding could infect your baby. In fact, breastfeeding reduces your baby's risk of contracting infectious gastroenteritis.
Maintaining adequate fluid intake is the main concern if you're a breastfeeding mom with diarrhea. Infectious diarrhea typically causes watery diarrhea, which can lead to dehydration. Insufficient hydration can cause dizziness or lightheadedness, especially when you stand up after sitting or lying down. This could pose a safety risk for both you and your baby, should you happen to fall. While it's important for you to increase your fluid intake to replace water lost due to diarrhea, your breast milk production is unlikely to be affected unless you are severely dehydrated. Infectious diarrhea can also leave you feeling tired, so it's important to rest as much as possible. Napping with your baby, for example, will enable you to rest and breastfeed as your baby on demand without having to get up.
Considerations About Medications
Viral gastroenteritis does not typically require any medication and usually goes away on its own in a few days. However, antibiotics are sometimes recommended to treat certain types of bacterial gastroenteritis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the decision whether to use antibiotics for bacterial gastroenteritis in a breastfeeding mother involve the woman along with the doctor or doctors of both the mother and baby. CDC cautions against use of over-the-counter antidiarrheal medicines containing bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol, Kaopectate) because this chemical passes into the breast milk and may harm the baby. Loperamide (Imodium) is another over-the-counter antidiarrheal. While generally considered safe for breastfeeding, check with your doctor before taking loperamide or any other over-the-counter medication, herb or supplement to be sure it is safe for you and your baby.
Next Steps and Cautionary Notes
Wash your hands with soap and water after using the bathroom, and before and after preparing food to avoid spread of infectious gastroenteritis to others in your household -- including your baby. In most cases, diarrhea resolves on its own and doesn't pose a significant health risk for a breastfeeding mother or her baby. However, diarrhea sometimes indicates a serious underlying condition. Seek medical care as soon as possible if you experience:
-- blood or pus in the stool
-- fever higher than 100.4 F
-- inability to keep down even fluids for more than a day
-- severe or worsening abdominal pain
-- marked decrease in milk supply
It's also important to keep an eye on your baby while you're sick. Report any new feeding problems or the sudden development of diarrhea to your baby's doctor right away.
Reviewed and revised by: Tina M. St. John, M.D.