It can be a challenge getting a newborn to feed. Perhaps you don’t have enough breast milk or a blocked milk duct, or baby isn’t latching on properly. Sore and cracked nipples also are real — real painful. When you finally get baby to breastfeed, it can feel miraculous. That special bond between just the two of you, knowing that you are providing the nourishment she needs to grow up healthy and strong.
When baby starts to get fussy while feeding, one of the reasons may be because of a common newborn condition: oral thrush. It can hurt both mom and baby to breastfeed. So, how do you know if your baby has thrush, and how do you get help?
This post will discuss what oral thrush looks like, oral thrush causes, its symptoms, and treatment.
What is oral thrush?
Oral thrush is a yeast infection that’s incredibly common, affecting the tongue and mouth. It occurs when too much of the yeast Candida albicans grows. Candida albicans accounts for 90% of human yeast infections, though some other yeast types can cause thrush.
Candida lives in our digestive tract and on our skin and normally doesn’t cause any issues, but babies are more prone to yeast infections because their immune systems have not fully developed. It occurs most often in babies younger than 1 month old, along with unhealthy adults or adults who have weakened immune systems, such as those with cancer.
In babies, oral thrush looks like white lumps on their tongue, but it can appear on their gums, tonsils, back of the throat, inner cheeks, or roof of the mouth. It often resembles cottage cheese in texture.
You may also hear oral thrush referred to as oral candidiasis, oropharyngeal candidiasis, a fungal infection, or Candida infection.
What causes oral thrush?
Infants may get thrush via their mothers’ breasts, or contact with infected hands or bottle nipples. In pregnancy, the colonization rate of Candida albicans may be as high as 33%, according to The University of Chicago Pediatrics Clerkship. Colonization refers to germs that are on or in our body but may not make us sick, versus infection, which makes us sick.
Thrush often appears at 1 week of age, with premature babies at high risk due to underdevelopment of their immune systems. In one study, preterm babies had an 85% risk of developing oral thrush in their first 25 days of a prolonged hospital stay.
Thrush can be passed by a mother to her baby while she breastfeeds, especially if she’s taken antibiotics. Antibiotics can kill off too much of the “good bacteria” in our bodies, therefore allowing yeast to grow.
Because yeast grows in warm, moist environments, a mother’s nipple is a good starting point for an infection. If she has an infection, she’ll generally have deep-pink, cracked, and sore nipples, and it can be painful to nurse. She may also be tender during and after nursing.
While some babies may not feel any symptoms, there are some surefire ways to tell if your baby has oral thrush:
- Baby has white, velvety sores on her mouth and tongue;
- Baby’s mouth may also have redness, and wiping the sores will cause them to bleed;
- She also may have diaper rash, as yeast can travel to her stool;
- She may be super fussy and not wanting to feed.
The sores are pretty easy to recognize, so a trip to the doctor will usually result in a quick diagnosis.
See also: Breastfeeding Problems: What Can I Do?
How long does it take to treat oral thrush in babies?
Luckily, thrush will go away on its own within 3-8 weeks in most cases. However, some babies do need treatment for thrush. Your doctor will give you an antifungal medication that you’ll apply to the inside of baby’s mouth for 7-14 days.
It’s important that you and your baby are treated for the yeast infection at the same time, if you are infected, so you don’t pass it back and forth. You may also need an antifungal cream for your nipples to apply in between feedings.
Is oral thrush contagious?
Yes, and it can return (or never leave). If your baby has recurrent thrush, she may have an underlying medical issue such as an autoimmune deficiency. It’s important to seek the help of your doctor when baby has oral thrush, particularly if she refuses to eat and if you have an infection on your nipples.
When bringing a newborn home, there are a lot of things to think about. Perhaps the nursery wasn’t quite finished and you’re having a lot of sleepless nights, but there are a few simple things you can do to prevent thrush in your baby. Clean and sterilize anything baby puts in her mouth, like bottles, pacifiers, and toys, and change her diapers often to prevent the infection from spreading to her diaper area. Even if she does get thrush after all your precautions — we aren’t perfect, after all — rest easy that it should be gone in no time.
Interested in other articles about breastfeeding? Safe Birth Project has you covered. Check out some of our most popular breastfeeding questions and answers below: