E. coli is a fairly well known bacterium. A particularly nasty strain, known as E. coli O157:H7, attacks the kidneys and can cause very severe disease. The question is, can women safely breastfeed if they have the disease? 

It is important to know that this particular type of E. coli is very infectious and can pass from the mother to her infant. Human milk gets contaminated with bacteria from the mother’s nipple and areola. It is unlikely that milk itself will be contaminated with E. coli, but the mother’s skin can transmit the bacteria to the milk. A thorough washing of the mother’s hands and breasts with soap and water before breastfeeding could help against transmission.

If the mother is infected at the time of delivery, she should not breastfeed for about 7 days. After 7 days, mothers can breastfeed if they have a healthy milk supply and are under treatment for the disease. Breastfeeding may even help the infants against E. coli and other diseases. Mothers should wash their hands and breasts thoroughly with soap and water to reduce mother-to-child transmission.

Adapted by Saneea Almas, MD from an original written for the InfantRisk Center.

Hale TW, Hartman PE, Hartmann PE. Textbook of Human Lactation. Amarillo: Hale Publishing LPL; 2007.