Breastfeeding Mothers and Medicines
It may happen that at some stage a nursing mother will require medication, be that over-the-counter (OTC) or prescribed. Pharmacists are well-used to offering advice on the most appropriate treatment for many common ailments and are always available to answer your questions.
In relation to prescribed medication, the GP will have taken the fact that a mum is breastfeeding into account and chosen a medicine accordingly. They will look at the risk/benefit balance as to whether medication is necessary at all and if it is, then they will use the most appropriate one. Many medicines pass into the breast milk to some extent but this does not mean they will have an adverse effect on your baby; certain antibiotics, for example, are considered safe to use when breastfeeding. As part of the dispensing process, this will be checked by your pharmacist – just remember to tell them you are breastfeeding.
Other medicines may reduce your milk supply so in that case, it is best to choose an alternative. This is why a Progesterone Only Pill is recommended to women who are breastfeeding as opposed to the Combined Oral Contraceptive Pill.
If a medicine is essential but is considered to be present in high quantities in the milk and may possibly cause adverse effects, it is still possible to continue feeding. In that case, we would avoid using long-acting medicines, for example, and offer advice on pumping and discarding some milk at intervals. Your doctor and pharmacist will advise you when this is necessary. Your Public Health Nurse or local area Breastfeeding Support Group can also be very supportive in helping you continue to breastfeed through illness or while taking medication.
While of course we would advise against taking any non-essential medicines, it is important to remember that you need to care for yourself too. On Occasions we meet mothers who choose not to take a medicine they believe will pass into their milk, but it is really important to remember that if you are not well, your breastmilk supply may be affected. If your GP decides on balance that you need to take a course of prescribed medication, it may be better both for you and your baby in the long run to take it.
Aside from prescribed medicines, you may need some simple OTC medicines for coughs, colds, upset stomach etc. It is very important that you or your partner tell the pharmacist that your baby is breastfed when seeking advice or purchasing products. We will be able to advise you on which medicines are safe and which are not recommended. We will often be able to recommend an alternative to your preferred painkiller or cough medicine if that one is considered unsuitable. For example, paracetamol is considered to be a suitable painkiller for a breastfeeding mother and while you may not be able to take a decongestant, we can suggest a suitable nasal spray instead.
Each baby is unique as is each situation so the best advice is to speak to your pharmacist for information tailored to your needs. We can provide reassurance and support you in choosing the correct treatment for you and your baby.
This article is for general information purposes only. For professional healthcare advice, ask your pharmacist first.
Caitriona O’Riordan is a community pharmacist and owner of O’Riordan’s Pharmacy, Enniskeane, Co Cork. She has written articles for the IPU Review, the pharmacy journal of the Irish Pharmacy Union. She has a special interest in infant feeding and is a mother of three boys.