Most medications are compatible with breastfeeding because usually only a very small proportion actually reaches the breast milk. The amount of medication that reaches a baby through breast milk will depend on a number of the drugs’ properties such as half life1, molecular size, fat solubility, protein binding and what happens to it in the baby’s gut 2. If one drug isn’t recommended there is often an alternative that is safer or more compatible. Many diagnostic tests are compatible with breastfeeding as well.
This article looks at what to do if your doctor tells you to stop breastfeeding in order to take a medication, why stopping breastfeeding isn’t usually needed and provides resources to check drug compatibility with breastfeeding.
My doctor told me to stop breastfeeding
Sometimes a breastfeeding mother may need to take a medicine that her health professional says isn’t compatible with breastfeeding. If your doctor tells you to stop breastfeeding in order to take a medication, check whether they have consulted one of the resources specific to breastfeeding and medications below, or whether a more compatible drug could be prescribed. The Physicians Desk Reference (PDR) and the drug companies package insert are not reliable sources of information on drug safety when breastfeeding:
The pharmaceutical manufacturer’s resistance to using medications in breastfeeding mothers is almost always based on legal reasons, not clinical reasons. Because the PDR basically lists only the pharmaceutical’s package insert, the standard recommendation is to not take the medication while breastfeeding. The PDR is the poorest source for obtaining accurate breastfeeding information.
Breastfeeding is important
Explain to your doctor how important breastfeeding is to you and your baby. As Jack Newman, a Canadian paediatrician and breastfeeding expert, says below, breastfeeding is too important to mother and baby to be stopped unnecessarily:
There are some rare situations in which a mother’s or baby’s illness means that breastfeeding cannot continue. Too often, though, health professionals recommend weaning the baby without thinking. In the vast majority of cases, stopping breastfeeding is detrimental to the baby and the mother and completely unnecessary. A health professional who is truly supportive of breastfeeding will make every effort to find ways for the mother to continue at the same time as helping her to cope with medical conditions.
Stopping breastfeeding is not usually necessary
The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding summarises why stopping breastfeeding is not usually necessary:
- Even if a mother’s blood level for a given drug is high, it’s still very dilute for her breastfeeding baby to swallow in her milk, digest, and put into his bloodstream.
- Age matters. Some drugs that might be a concern for premature infants are not a concern for full-term babies. The older the baby, the less the concern. Some mothers are mistakenly told to wean for a drug that may be given directly to babies or small children.
- When in doubt, check the baby’s blood or just watch for changes like diarrhea or fussiness.
- Temporary weaning—and pumping, and bottle-feeding an unhappy baby—is a huge physical and emotional stress during an already stressful time.
- Breastfeeding is not a faucet. Turning it off abruptly can mean turning it off permanently. Talk about risks!
- Further risk reduction: Nursing before taking the dose, waiting five “ half- lives,” finding a safer drug or treatment, even nursing part-time—all far better choices than even temporary weaning.
- Drug companies tend to recommend weaning to avoid litigation. The actual research rarely supports weaning.
Checking medications and breastfeeding
Your health professional will need to review the safety of each medication because there are a few drugs that are not compatible with breastfeeding. Reliable resources for checking medications and breastfeeding include:
Medications and Mothers’ Milk (book/online)
Lactmed online (free). There is also a free Lactmed app:
Need to know more about drugs/supplements and breastfeeding? LactMed can help. Find information about maternal and infant drug levels, possible effects on lactation and on breastfed infants, and alternative drugs to consider.
E-lactancia is a free online resource from APILAM3 in Spain. It includes information on breastfeeding and phytotherapy (plants), homeopathy, cosmetic and medical procedures, contaminants, maternal and infant diseases and more. Information is available in Spanish or English.
Drugs and breastfeeding (online in Swedish)
Läkemedel och amning; a free drugs and breastfeeding database for health professionals in Swedish by Stockholm County Council.
The Breastfeeding Network do an extensive range of online drugs factsheets covering many frequently used medications including anaesthetics, pain killers, cold remedies, antihistamines (hay fever medications), vaccinations and antidepressants.
- For a telephone helpline in the UK you or your health professional can contact the Breastfeeding Network’s Drugs in Breast Milk Helpline 0844 412 4665.
- In the United States you can call the InfantRisk Center on (806) 352 2519.
- In Canada contact MotherRisk on 1-877-439-2744.
- In Finland contact Teratologisk Information Service 09 4717 6500 includes information on medications during pregnancy and breastfeeding in Finnish and English.
In addition to the excellent Medications and Mother’s Milk 2017, other helpful books that discuss the safety of individual drugs when breastfeeding include:
- Breastfeeding and Medication, Wendy Jones, 2013
- Nonprescription Drugs: for the Breastfeeding Mother, Frank J Nice, 2011
If you do need to stop breastfeeding
If you do need to wean due to medical reasons have a look at How to Stop Breastfeeding so that you can stop breastfeeding without getting engorgement or mastitis.
If your doctor is not supportive of breastfeeding and asks you to stop breastfeeding to take a medication, explain how important breastfeeding is to you and your baby. Most medications are compatible with breastfeeding. If a particular drug is not compatible, alternatives with a better safety record are often available. Share the resources listed above and discuss with your physician whether an alternative treatment is possible.
**Extracts reproduced by permission from Pinter & Martin