It has become common for most of us to reach for antibiotics at the first sign of illness. However, antibiotics are powerful medications that are only meant for certain bacterial infections and can provide no benefits in the treatment of viral or parasitic infections. In fact, the inappropriate use of antibiotics can be counterproductive, causing other health problems. This is obviously even more concerning during pregnancy and when breastfeeding. Before we answer the question ‘are antibiotics safe while breastfeeding?’, it helps to understand how medications work.
The idea that a mother’s health has a direct impact on her infant is not a new concept, but was also known to Ayurvedic physicians in ancient India. This knowledge is supported by science today, which shows that almost any medication that is consumed and enters the bloodstream, also enters into breast milk. This is also true if you are taking antibiotics while breastfeeding. Although the amount of the substance that actually reaches your infant through breastfeeding will be considerably lower than in your body, some antibiotics and medications can pose a risk of side effects in your baby.
The benefits of breastfeeding for infants have been well-established, but we are now learning that the use of certain antibiotics can be detrimental. This may even be the case with some antibiotics that are regarded as safe and have been prescribed for infants. This was pointed out in a study that appeared in JAMA Pediatrics.
When breastfed, infants receive specific sugar components and bacteria from the mother that are beneficial to the infant’s health as they promote the growth of healthy gut bacteria. The use of antibiotics was found to disrupt the development of infants’ intestinal bacteria, with some consequences that could persist into adulthood. As these infants would not get the same breast milk health benefits as other infants, changes in the microbiota were found to increase the risk of chronic inflammation in the bloodstream. This is a condition that is associated with metabolic syndrome disorders, obesity, and fatty liver disease.
Such findings make it clear that mothers and paediatricians should exercise caution, carefully considering whether it is safe to take antibiotics while breastfeeding.
To put it simply – antibiotics work by killing bacteria in your body. Unfortunately, most antibiotics are indiscriminate and will destroy both harmful bacteria and ‘good’ bacteria that are needed for gut health. This is why antibiotic use is a concern while breastfeeding and women’s concerns about antibiotics affecting breastfeeding are not unfounded. Here are some risks that we know of:
Antibiotic use during breastfeeding is associated with tummy upsets in babies, which is linked with a possible reduction in good gut bacteria in the baby. In most cases, this effect is temporary and will not have lasting effects, unless the antibiotic use is continued for a long period of time. Sometimes, this may simply manifest as increased fussiness and loss of appetite.
The adverse effect of antibiotic use on the gut microbiota also increases the risk of a type of fungal infection caused by the yeast – Candida Albicans. Levels of this yeast start to explode when there is an imbalance and the overgrowth results in a yeast infection.
When this infection affects the mouth, it is termed thrush, a condition in which you will notice a creamy white coating on the inside of the mouth. It can also cause diaper rash, a condition that affects the folds of skin in the groin area, causing reddening, inflammation, and red dots.
Researchers and health care experts are also concerned about the long-term consequences of maternal antibiotic use on infant health because of changes in the gut microbiome. Breastfeeding is normally associated with a healthy BMI or body mass index later in childhood, but this benefit is reduced in infants who receive antibiotics directly or through breastfeeding. They are, therefore, not only more vulnerable to obesity, but also at risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease later in life.
These downsides may make it seem like antibiotic use is not worth the risk, but this is not true in all cases. More importantly, to answer the question ‘can you breastfeed while on antibiotics?’ – it’s a definite yes, as the ill effects of not breastfeeding are higher than those from antibiotic use. However, before you make any decision to use or avoid any medication you should speak to your health care provider. It is also advisable to rely on natural remedies and herbal formulations for minor illnesses that do not pose a serious health risk as these are generally regarded as safe even when breastfeeding.