Does breastfeeding protect infants against flu in the winter?

Winter and spring are peak flu seasons, and children under three are at increased risk.

In North America, flu season kicks into overdrive in December and reaches its peak in February. However, the cold weather doesn’t cause the flu. Rather, the virus thrives in winter’s cold, dry conditions. Unfortunately, people don’t fare as well. The lack of sunlight compromises our immune systems while close quarters increase our risk of picking up the flu from others. Infants are the most vulnerable, but breastfeeding gives little ones an immune boost that protects them from the flu and other respiratory infectious diseases.

Three out of ten children contract influenza each year, and infants are at greater risk of serious illness.

Research shows that 20–30% of children contract the flu every year with children who spend time in confined childcare centers being particularly vulnerable to mass outbreaks. More troubling, infants younger than six months old are at significant risk for serious illness with influenza, “leading to higher rates of hospitalization, more prolonged intensive care unit (ICU) stays and higher fatality rates (0.88 per 100,000 children) than almost any other age group,” according to another published study. During some winters, nearly 10% of all infants less than six months of age experience an influenza-related illness and require care in a clinic, emergency room, or hospital.

Breast milk protects babies with flu-resistant antibodies and immune benefits.

Despite the toll influenza takes on young children, the CDC does not advice vaccination for infants under six months old. That leaves one of the most vulnerable groups unprotected during flu season. There is a solution, however. When mothers receive the influenza vaccination while pregnant or nursing, they pass along immune benefits to their babies through their breast milk. Even if a mother has the flu, the CDC recommends she continue breastfeeding (if she doesn’t have a fever) or pumping breast milk for baby, as her body is making antibodies that the baby needs to prevent flu infection.

Best practices for breastfeeding during flu season.

Get vaccinated. Immunization reduces the risk of flu to mothers and their infants. Since babies under six months can’t get vaccinated, the CDC recommends that parents, siblings, and other caregivers should receive an annual flu vaccination when possible to protect the baby.

Practice healthy hygiene. Avoid close contact with people sick with the flu. Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when sneezing or coughing and throw tissues away immediately afterwards. Wash your hands thoroughly before breastfeeding, pumping, or otherwise handling your baby. Disinfect surfaces to prevent the spread of the virus through contact.

Breastfeed or pump regularly. Breast milk offers infants the best protection from infections through antibodies and other immunological factors. Feeding your infant breast milk, even when you’re ill, reduces their risk of serious infections, including influenza and other severe respiratory illnesses.

Can’t breastfeed. Pumping breast milk still offers immune protection.

If you’ve got a fever or are otherwise unable to nurse your baby during flu season, pumped breast milk offers many of the same advantages, including antibodies from your immune system. Doing anything while you’re sick can be a chore. However, pumping breast milk ensures your milk supply doesn’t diminish while you’re unwell. Reach out to friends and family if you need extra support breastfeeding and pumping during flu season.