How to care for a sick nursling

April 20, 2009

Welcome to the Motherwear Carnival of Breastfeeding!

Not long ago, I shared my tips for surviving a cold or flu as a breastfeeding mom. Today I want to talk about what to do if you’re healthy, but your nursing baby or toddler is sick. My advice is based on my own experience and is really focused on managing daily life while caring for your sick nursling. Ask your pediatrician about what your child needs during his or her specific illness, and if you are unsure about anything, talk to your child’s doctor first!

1. Nurse, nurse, nurse! This is the single most helpful thing you can do. Your breastmilk is a complete food, providing not only the most important nutrients, but also unique immune factors that will help your nursling fight his illness better than any other food or supplement you could imagine. Any time you are exposed to an illness, your immune system produces antibodies to fight the infection. These antibodies are passed on to your baby through your milk, making it one of nature’s most clever protective mechanisms for little people whose immune systems are not yet mature. In fact, when a baby or toddler is sick, breastmilk is often the only thing he will willingly eat/drink and the only thing he is able to keep down. So try not to limit your child’s time at the breast. Be aware that your older baby may give up solid foods for a while and may not return to previous eating habits for a while, even after he is healthy again. If you have recently begun weaning, go back to allowing your child to nurse on demand until the infection has cleared up. You can always return to the weaning process later. Right now, helping baby get well has priority. Depending on what kind of infection baby has, you may want to modify the frequency and/or length of feedings. This overview by kellymom should give you a good idea of what to do.

2. Revive your comfy nursing spot. If your baby is younger, you probably have a nursing station all set up. If your baby is older and more mobile, you may have already transitioned to shorter nursing sessions that take place all over the house. If the latter is the case, you would do well to bring back the nursing station and stock it with water, snacks, reading material, the remote, pillows and whatever else you need to make it comfortable. Even if your baby hasn’t randomly fallen asleep while nursing for ages, dont be surprised if it happens when baby is sick. The reason, of course, is that a sick body needs lots and lots of rest, and even older babies and toddlers may go back to “sleeping like a newborn” when fighting an infection and high fever. So be prepared for your nursling to nod off in your arms – if you’re comfortable when that happens, you won’t mind leaning back and resting a little yourself or keeping yourself busy with a quiet activity.

3. Wear baby in a sling. If your baby is young, you may be able to get away with going about your normal activities while baby sleeps and nurses in a sling. Obviously, avoid going outside if it’s very hot or very cold, since baby’s body will have a hard time dealing with extreme weather while working to combat illness. But otherwise, if baby can get the much needed rest and breastmilk in the sling, you can do housework, make phone calls, write emails. If baby is restless, fidgety, or simply unable to settle down while you remain busy, you may have to ditch this idea and opt for a well-stocked nursing station instead (see number 2).

4. Watch TV all day. Well, not exactly. Ever since my daughter started going to nursery school, she seems to get a new cold or flu bug every couple of weeks. Until she was about 18 months old, she would nurse and sleep all day whenever she was sick, mostly in my arms. So my survival strategy involved a nursing station and a whole bunch of dvds. It wasn’t as though she was watching tv – she was asleep or half-asleep almost the entire time. But I kept myself from going stir crazy by watching episodes of my favorite tv show. I kept the volume low and turned the tv off any time Marie was really awake, and when she wasn’t, I got a welcome distraction from my concern over my daughter’s health.

5. Banish bedtimes. Starting at about 18 months, the television strategy became less effective. Marie was no longer able to sleep soundly in my arms. So the new strategy was to put her to bed any time I thought she might be able to sleep. Sometimes she had fallen asleep at the breast, and I would move her to her bed. She always woke up and fussed, but was usually back asleep within minutes. In fact, this was the first time in her life where we were actually able to put her to bed awake and leave the room before she had fallen asleep! She herself wanted to sleep so badly that she hardly complained at all when we did this, and when we checked on her two minutes later, she was sound asleep. The “banish bedtimes” rule is simply this: don’t look at the clock. You may have an iron-clad routine for naps, meals, baths and bedtime, but you may find that it is completely impractical when your baby or toddler is sick. Instead, encourage your child to sleep whenever you get the sense that it might work, and by the same token, don’t put your child to bed if he doesn’t seem sleepy. It’s just not worth the struggle. You and your child need to preserve your energy for more important things right now.

6. Trust your child’s body. This rule applies both to food and medications. I’ll start with meds.

You may be tempted to give your child Tylenol or Motrin for a fever, but evaluate the situation carefully before you do. While your child will probably feel a lot better after a dose of Tylenol, this may interfere with what her body is trying to tell her, namely to rest. So if the fever isn’t terribly high, it might be best to abstain from medicating. If you do decide to administer either Tylenol or Motrin, make sure to encourage your child to rest even after the medicine has kicked in. When Marie gets Tylenol for a high fever, she often feels well enough to run around and play, only to feel even worse than before when the medicine begins to wear off. For advice on when to give a fever-reducing medicine, see the overview by Dr. Sears.

A similar rule applies to food. If your sick child isn’t hungry, don’t push it. His body is telling him that digesting food is simply too much work right now. If you’re breastfeeding, he’s getting all the nutrition he needs right now, anyway. Often, when the infection involved is a stomach bug, breastmilk is the only thing your baby or toddler can keep down. This is a blessing! Imagine how much harder it would be if your couldn’t give your child breastmilk! And as long as your nursling is wetting enough diapers and not showing any signs of dehydration, you don’t have to worry about giving any additional fluids.

7. Get meals on wheels. Don’t make yourself crazy trying to cook nutritious, wholesome meals when you’re caring for a sick child. Yes, this is a time to pay especially close attention to good nutrition, but that doesn’t have to mean slaving over a hot stove all day. One well-planned trip to the grocery store will probably tide you over for 3-5 days. If, for whatever reason, you feel you shouldn’t leave the house with your nursling, try to enlist someone else to do the shopping: your partner, another family member, another mom from your kids’ carpool or even a neighbor. They don’t have to go to the store just for you – you can ask them to pick up a few items when they plan on going shopping for themselves. It’s worth asking. The worst thing that can happen is that they say no, and if they say yes, offer to do the same for them if the need should arise. Get plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables that you can munch on with little preparation. Nuts, whole-grain bread and/or crackers and canned soups are also great foods to have on hand when you don’t have time to cook. And keeping your freezer stocked with frozen stir-fries or other healthy and easy meals can also be a lifesaver, especially if you have older kids who expect to have a “real” meal in the evenings. On that note, if you have other family members to cook for, try to get your partner to do the cooking. If that’s not an option, surprise the kids with pizza night or some other takeout/delivery meal. Just because you order in doesn’t mean it has to be unhealthy. Most pizza parlor menus include healthy options, including salads, for example, and a thin crust, veggie combo pizza isn’t nearly as greasy as, say, a meat lover’s pan pizza. Whatever works best for you, make sure you drink enough water and eat regularly throughout the day, either by grazing or eating several meals. You need to keep up your strength when you’re taking care of little ones, otherwise you might end up sick yourself.

8. Cancel or postpone everything you can. If you have a regular job, call in sick. If you’re self-employed, postpone or cancel as much as you can. Those projects that can’t be rescheduled will have to be squeezed in while your little patient sleeps. You will probably feel guilty about “letting down” your boss or clients. Don’t. Your family is important, and a job – no matter how much you love it – is just a job. This is also where prevention is the best medicine: my experience has shown that if you are punctual and reliable under normal circumstances, your employer and/or clients will be much more forgiving when a sick family member needs your support.

As far as non-work-related commitments, you have permission to be flaky. Your friends will understand. The housework will understand. After all, what’s more important: your baby’s health or the dust bunnies in the corners of your living room? Give yourself some slack.

9. Get things done while you can. On the other hand, you might find that what your nursling does most during an illness is sleep. If this is the case, and especially if she is able to sleep on her own (as opposed to in your arms), you might feel like this is the perfect opportunity to get things done around the house – from housework to freelance projects to arts and crafts projects with your older children. If this is the case, don’t feel like you’re abandoning your sick nursling. If baby can get the rest she needs while you get things done, you’ve merely found a way to meet everyone’s needs simultaneously. And since you’re a mom, I don’t have to tell you that this is a sweet spot we rarely achieve.

Armed with these ideas, I hope you’ll be able to maintain your sanity while you nurse your baby back to health (pun intended)!

Be sure to check out the other contributions to this month’s Carnival of Breastfeeding:

How to Breastfeed, by Candace of Mama Saga

How to Pump Successfully at Work, by the Marketing Mama

How to Get Baby to Take a Bottle, by Sam at babyREADY

How to Get Baby to Kick the Nipple Shield Habit, by Tanya at the Motherwear Breastfeeding Blog

How to Get Breastfeeding Off to a Good Start, by Amber at Strocel.com

How to Breastfeed Hands Free, by Stephanie at Baby Carriers Downunder

How to Become a Breastfeeding Support Professional, by Melodie at Breastfeeding Moms Unite!

How to Increase Breastmilk Supply Using Supplements, by Kimberly of Maher Family Grows

How to Wean a Breastfed Toddler, by Sinead of Breastfeeding Mums

How To Treat a Cold While Breastfeeding, by Blacktating

How to Get a Spouse to Help With Breastfeeding, by Andi of Mama Knows Breast

How to Be Comfortable Around Breastfeeding, by Tophat

How to Stop Nosy Questions Using YouTube, by Zen Mommy

How to (Naturally) Increase Your Milk Supply, by Diane of MoBoleez

How to Deal with Unsupportive Family Members, by Happy Bambino

How to Teach Your Baby Nursing Manners, by Angela of Breastfeeding 1-2-3

How to Improve Milk Supply Through Nutrition, by Kristin of Natural Birth and Baby Care

How to Tandem Nurse Without Driving Yourself Crazy, by Trish of Tiny Grass

8 Responses to “How to care for a sick nursling”

  1. Steph said

    Thanks for the great post! I think your idea of reviving the nursing station may be just what we need next time a lurgy visits this house.

  2. Kimberly said

    Oh, I do love my “nursing station”. It is where I am right now, typing one handed. I never do remember the water though….

  3. Amber said

    I know that a lot of moms are told to give their ill children electrolyte drinks to keep them hydrated. One of the best parts of nursing for me was being able to bypass all of that. As long as my nursling was spending lots of time at the breast I felt confident she was well-hydrated, as well as gaining all of the immunological benefits you mentioned. It’s really fabulous, and reduced my stress level, too, thanks to the great nursing hormones.

  4. TopHat said

    The “watch TV” suggestion made me LOL. When my DD was a newborn, I watched all of our DVDs and most of the commentaries on all of them (I think I saw Spiderman three times) because I didn’t want to move from my nursing place. :)

  5. Lara said

    Thanks for such a thoughtful and comprehensive post. My recent experience leads me to ask about what to do when they won’t breastfeed? My little one (16mo) had Hand, Foot & Mouth disease, which made his mouth so sore, he couldn’t feed for over 24 hours. I pumped, and gave him the milk in a cup after it had cooled in the fridge, he drank that way until he was feeling better.

    Unfortunately, I know other mums who weaned because of this disease instead of pumping. Perhaps you could add a quick section on nursing strikes, perhaps you will reach someone that is considering weaning when they don’t have to.

    Thanks again!

  6. Layla Beth said

    Great advice! :-)

  7. milkmaid said

    Lara, thanks for your comment. You’re absolutely right! The fact that I didn’t include anything about a nursing strike was an oversight, mainly because it isn’t something I’ve experienced yet. :-) I’ll have to add something on the topic soon. In the meantime, readers who are interested in how to deal with a nursing strike that occurs during baby’s illness can check out this link: http://www.breastfeed-essentials.com/nursingstrike.html

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