Everything you need to know about your baby's oral thrush

Here's what oral thrush looks like, how to deal it and what the condition means for breastfeeding moms. (Yup, you can get it too.)

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Stacey Cham-Klein and her daughter, Olivia, shared many things in their first few months together: lots of cuddles, sleepless hours and, sorry to say, a case of thrush, passed back and forth between Olivia’s mouth and Stacey’s nipples and breasts when she nursed. “I noticed that her tongue looked like white sandpaper,” she remembers. “She would unlatch pretty quickly, and it felt like I was on fire when I was nursing. My nipples were a glossy cotton candy pink—it was crazy.” Oral thrush, also known as oral candidiasis, is a fairly common type of yeast infection that can appear in infants and breastfeeding moms. It’s most common in babies less than two months old, but it can happen at any age. Here’s what you need to know.

What does it look like?

“Thrush looks like thick, white, cheesy clumps on the tongue, inside of the mouth and gums,” says Kerry Harris, a midwife based in Vancouver. She adds that thrush can sometimes be confused with ordinary milk residue on your baby’s tongue, but thrush doesn’t wipe away as easily as milk does. Your baby may also have a red rash in their diaper area and be generally fussy, especially when it’s time to eat. It shouldn’t be painful for babies, but it can be for moms. Breastfeeding mothers may notice red, shiny, irritated and peeling skin on their nipples. “Often, thrush is a burning or stabbing pain that goes from the front of the breast toward the chest,” says Harris. “The pain can happen during or between feedings.”

Why does it happen?

A yeast called candida grows naturally in the body, including the mouth. Some babies get an overgrowth of this yeast because their immune systems aren’t mature yet. Your baby can pass it on to you during breastfeeding, especially if you have cracked or irritated nipples.

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How do I deal with it?

The first step is a thorough assessment by a healthcare provider so that you know what you’re dealing with, says Harris. Your healthcare provider may recommend some of the following remedies, which are safe for both babies and breastfeeding moms.

  • Nystatin, a prescription liquid antifungal medication, can be administered with a dropper in your baby’s mouth after nursing. You can also use a prescription cream that contains nystatin or an over-the-counter antifungal cream, similar to one used to treat vaginal yeast infections, on the nipples after nursing, says Harris.
  • An all-purpose nipple ointment like Dr. Jack Newman’s All Purpose Nipple Ointment, a compound cream that includes anti-inflammatory, antifungal and antibiotic ingredients, can be applied after nursing.
  • Gentian violet, an antiseptic dye in a water-based solution, can be applied to your baby’s mouth and your nipples with a cotton swab before nursing. (This is messy purple stuff and can stain fabric and skin.)
  • Lanolin ointment can be applied to the nipples before breastfeeding as a barrier to yeast.
  • An over-the-counter pain medication, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, can be taken to help relieve pain in new moms.
  • Boiling bottle nipples, pacifiers, breast pump parts and medication droppers for 20 minutes daily will sterilize them.
  • Changing breast pads and bras frequently if you’re breastfeeding and going topless whenever possible can help. “Yeast really likes warm, dark environments, so get light and air on your breasts,” advises Harris.

How long does it last?

“Thrush can be persistent and usually lasts for a week or two,” says Harris. “If it persists beyond that with treatment, talk to your healthcare provider.”

 

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