Understanding the Benefits of Breastfeeding During Flu Season
Flu season can be especially worrisome with a new baby. Rest assured, mama, you have a superpower at your disposal – Breastfeeding is one of the best things you can do to keep your little one’s immune system strong (as well as your own)! Here’s why it can be especially amazing during the fall and winter flu seasons.
Understanding the Flu
The flu, also known as influenza, is an upper respiratory virus that infects the nose, throat and lungs. Common symptoms often include fatigue, headaches, runny nose, sore throat, fever and chills. Most people will get better on their own, but the flu can cause complications or worsen in rare circumstances.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the flu is more dangerous than a cold for children, and pregnant women and young children are among the groups most at risk for developing flu-related complications like pneumonia.
Infants are at Greater Risk
Infants who get the flu can get sicker than older children or adults, which is why it’s especially important to give babies every advantage possible to strengthen their immune system and have as much protection as possible against illness. In fact, according to the Cleveland Clinic, a newborn baby’s immune system doesn’t mature until about 2 or 3 months old.
Luckily, you have a powerful immune booster at your disposal! Breastfeeding – and all the amazing vitamins and nutrients that your milk is composed of – can help safeguard your baby’s fragile immune system to better fight off seasonal illnesses like the flu and other viruses.
How Long Does Flu Season Last?
Way too long – especially when navigating life with babies and young children! In Canada, flu viruses tend to be most rampant in late fall and winter. Timing can vary year by year, but viruses typically start to circulate in October and then peak between December to February.
We know you can’t live in a bubble with your baby forever (as much as you may want to!), but if your little one is only a few months old during peak flu season then it’s a good idea to take extra precautions. Be sure that anyone caring for or touching your baby isn’t sick and that they thoroughly washed their hands before getting close to your little one.
All the Benefits of Breastfeeding During Flu Season
Your Baby's First Superfood - Colostrum!
Human milk is truly a wonder, with immense evidence-based benefits for both you and your little one. Right from the beginning, newborns benefit from your first breast milk – known as colostrum and frequently referred to informally as “liquid gold”. Colostrum is revered because of its nutrient-rich profile and the strong protection it provides to your baby as soon as they’ve left the cozy confines of your belly.
During the first few days, colostrum nourishes your baby like nothing else can and immediately lines your little one’s intestines to protect and support their gut. That’s why it’s often even referred to as “baby’s first vaccine”! Colostrum contains dozens of crucially important components, like:
- Immunoglobin A (IgA) antibodies for immunity
- Vitamin A, which helps your baby’s vision and skin adjust to life outside the womb
- Magnesium, to support your little one’s heart and bones
- Epidermal growth factor, a protein that encourages cell growth
Breast Milk is an Amazing Immunity Booster
Once your mature milk comes in, it contains even higher quantities of components that protect against pathogens. Breast milk is a miraculous mix of everything your baby needs right now, including antibodies, white blood cells, stem cells, protective enzymes, iron, vitamins and tons of other nutrients that can only be found in your milk.
Along with reducing your baby’s risk for colds and flu, breast milk can even protect against common childhood illnesses like middle ear, respiratory track and gut infections, along with reducing the risk of diabetes, leukemia and obesity.
Perfectly designed by your body for your baby, just a few of the life-giving components of mature milk include:
- Micronutrients (vitamins, minerals and trace elements) that support development and overall wellness
- More than 1,000 different proteins, including lactoferrin, to transport iron and prevent infections
- Fatty acids, known for their antiviral and antibacterial properties
Breast Milk Provides Evidence-Based Protections vs. the Flu
Studies indicate that breast milk can protect against respiratory viruses like the flu by activating innate antiviral mechanisms. In one study, exclusive breastfeeding was shown to reduce the risk of an upper respiratory virus, as well as of other infections too.
The composition of your milk is dynamic and ever-changing to meet your baby’s needs at that moment. As you and your little one are exposed to viruses and bacteria, your body produces additional vitamins, minerals and antibodies in response that are then passed along to your baby through your breast milk.
If you or your little one do pick up an infection, the number of white blood cells in your milk increases to better battle the illness. As a result, breast milk can actually shorten the duration of an illness and help your baby rebound faster! That’s why even if you’re fighting off a cold or flu, it’s recommended to continue providing breast milk (while taking precautions, of course) so your baby reaps all the benefits of mama’s milk.
Your Milk Also Nurtures Your Baby's Gut Microbiome
Research continues to uncover the vast nutritional benefits of breast milk, including 200+ human milk oligosaccharides – or complex sugars – that help promote gut health.
In one recent study*, researchers demonstrated how beneficial microbes in the guts of infants use nitrogen from breast milk to support the immune and digestive systems in aiding brain development. This indicates that the molecules in breast milk not only feed your baby, but also your baby’s microbiome – which adds a whole new level to how we should be thinking about breast milk and its incredible benefits!
Breastfeeding Strengthens Mama's Immune System Too!
Remember mama, the healthier you are, the better you can take care of your baby during peak cold and flu season. With that in mind, it’s important to remember that breastfeeding helps moms too. In the short term, breastfeeding helps your overall wellness by reducing your risk for postpartum depression and speeding up recovery after birth through the hormone oxytocin (which helps your uterus contract and recover).
In the longer term, breastfeeding also lowers a mother’s risk for developing many cancers (breast and ovarian, to name a couple), Type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
Common Questions About Breastfeeding During Flu Season
Can I pass the flu to my baby through breast milk?
According to the U.S. CDC, the flu virus cannot be passed to your baby through your breast milk.
Should I stop breastfeeding if I have the flu?
No, you should still continue to provide your baby with the immune benefits that breast milk provides – while taking precautions to avoid spreading the virus during close contact.
The flu is primarily spread through respiratory droplets when you cough, sneeze, talk or touch a surface with the flu virus on it and then touch your mouth or nose. If you have the flu, practice good hygiene by washing your hands before touching your baby and keeping your mouth and nose out of reach (or covered) when around him or her.
If you’ve already integrated pumping into your breastfeeding routine, you may consider exclusively pumping temporarily to limit contact while you’re sick.
Can I get a flu shot while I’m breastfeeding?
Canada.ca confirms that the flu shot can be used safely during pregnancy and breastfeeding. With that recommendation in mind, whether you opt to get a flu shot while breastfeeding is largely a matter of personal preference and you should always do what you think is best for you and your baby.
*University of Massachusetts Amherst, Beneficial bacteria in the infant gut uses nitrogen from breast milk to support baby's health, ScienceDaily, March 2023.