Breastfeeding mums often ask me what will happen if they get ill, might breastmilk make the baby poorly? Would it be "good enough" if mum is run down? Would breastfeeding slow mum's recovery? The short answer is that for the majority of people, it is perfectly safe to continue feeding during most illnesses, with only a very few exceptions.
The most common situation is where a mum has a minor illness, a bad cold perhaps, and doesn't want to pass it on to a tiny baby. It is worth remembering that, by the time you are showing symptoms, the baby has already been exposed so switching to formula would not prevent that. In fact, your breastmilk contains the exact antibodies the baby needs to fight off the disease and continuing to breastfeed is likely to be the best protection you can offer your baby. It is also worth bearing in mind the fact that if you stop feeding suddenly you may have problems with engorgement, mastitis and other issues which would make you feel even worse. After a week or so of bottle feeding it can also be difficult to go back to the breast, many mothers find that what was meant to be a short break becomes a permanent change.
It might surprise you to hear that often illnesses are not present in breastmilk, and even if they are they may pose very little risk. For example, Hepatitis A is found in milk but infection in babies is rare and unlikely to be serious so it is generally thought that there is no need to stop breastfeeding. There are only a few exceptions, such as HIV, where it is best to switch to formula in most cases.
Many diseases are passed on through skin to skin contact or via droplets (coughs and sneezes) which means the only way to prevent infection would be to separate mother and baby. Most of the time, where mum has something like flu, this would be very extreme and is unnecessary. Taking sensible precautions is more than good enough. However with a few serious conditions, like tuberculosis, the baby does need to be kept away. That doesn't mean they can't have breastmilk though and it is often safe for mum to express milk, which someone else can give to the baby.
Any mum who is feeling unwell, and anybody else who comes into contact with the baby, can take some simple precautions to reduce the baby's exposure to disease. Washing hands well and as often as possible may seem obvious but can easily be forgotten at home. Any coughs or sneezes should be "caught" in a clean disposable tissue which is immediately thrown away, not kept for re-use. If anyone has a rash, spots or lesions those should be well covered with a bandage. Finally, it is helpful to avoid the baby touching your mouth or nose. Unfortunately that means no kisses for a few days.
Unless a mother is very ill, breastfeeding is unlikely to put her recovery in any danger. Even mums who are admitted to hospital can sometimes continue breastfeeding if they have the right support. Despite that, breastfeeding while ill is not a particularly pleasant experience and it is important to look after yourself. If at all possible delegate household tasks, including childcare, to other people so that you can go to bed and rest in between feeds. Make sure you are eating well, drinking enough and follow any other advice you are given by the doctor. Many medications are perfectly safe while breastfeeding, so if your doctor knows you are nursing and tells you to take something, take it! You might normally put on a brave face and battle through but now you have to look after yourself, if you don't you won't be able to look after your family.