What happens when babies get oral thrush?

If your infant is extra fussy during feedings and you notice white patches in her mouth, she may have an oral yeast infection known as thrush.

But what exactly is thrush, and how can you help your baby feel better? Here’s the deal.

What is thrush in babies?

Both common and not usually serious, thrush in babies is a type of yeast infection that typically appears as white or yellow irregularly shaped patches or sores that coat your baby’s mouth. Thrush often appears on the gums, tongue, roof of the mouth and/or insides of the cheeks.

Thrush in babies is caused by a yeast or fungus called Candida albicans. While it’s just a mild infection, thrush can be uncomfortable or even painful for your baby — and for you, if you’re breastfeeding and your little one passes the infection to you.

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How do babies get thrush?

Babies may develop oral thrush for a number of reasons, but mainly because their immune system is not fully developed and cannot fight off certain organisms.

Mothers who have had a vaginal yeast infection while pregnant or during delivery can pass the infection to their baby in the form of oral thrush. In addition, thrush flourishes on the yeast found in breast milk, infecting the mother’s nipples and milk ducts, which can result in an oral thrush infection for the baby.

If a sick baby is prescribed antibiotics, the medication may affect the balance of good and bad microbes, giving oral thrush ideal conditions to grow. Thrush can be passed on to the mother during breastfeeding. Cross-infection may occur if the mother has been on antibiotics during pregnancy or around the time of delivery. Steroids and oral contraceptives can also set up a scenario conducive to thrush.

Pacifier use can increase a baby’s risk for oral thrush, as does a nursing mother’s disproportionate intake of sweets and dairy products. Breastfeeding mothers who are anaemic or diabetic have a higher risk of contracting a yeast infection that can result in oral thrush for their baby.

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Signs of Oral Thrush.

White patches inside baby’s mouth. A white coating or patches of white on the tongue, gums, inside cheeks or roof of the mouth can be a sign of thrush — or they can simply be caused by milk residue, which often stays on a baby’s tongue after feeding but usually dissolves within an hour.  To tell whether or not your baby’s white tongue is caused by milk or this kind of fungal infection, try to wipe it off gently using a soft, damp cloth or a gauze-covered finger. If the tongue is pink and healthy-looking after wiping, no further treatment is necessary. If the white patch doesn’t come off very easily, or it does and you find a raw, red patch underneath, it’s likely thrush, and you should contact your paediatrician.

Fussiness during feeding or when your infant is sucking on a pacifier (baby starts to suck, then turns away in pain) is another sign that it could be thrush.

A mother infected with thrush may suddenly notice nipple pain or have cracked, itchy or burning nipples. Shooting pains deep in the breast are a symptom.

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Baby thrush treatments

Since thrush is easily passed back and forth, it’s best if both you and your baby get treated. For your baby, your paediatrician may prescribe an antifungal medication, which is applied topically to the insides of the mouth and tongue multiple times a day for 10 days. 

Be sure to get it on all the white patches in your baby’s mouth if that’s the remedy your doctor has given you. Babies with thrush who also develop yeast infection diaper rash can be treated with a different prescription antifungal medication specifically for that area.

If you have nipple thrush, your doctor will likely recommend that you apply a prescription antifungal cream to your breasts. With meds, the infection should take a week or so to clear up. Check with your doctor if it doesn’t.

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Preventing Reinfection.

Besides treating the mother and baby at the same time, the following hygiene protocols may reduce the chances of a reoccurring thrush infection:

  • Boil pacifiers and toys that the baby puts in their mouth for 20 minutes each day.
  • Replace pacifiers and bottle nipples after one week.
  • Boil breast pump parts that come in contact with breast milk for 20 minutes each day during treatment, and throw away damp breast pads.
  • To kill the yeast on clothing, wash with bleach or a cup of vinegar.
  • Wash hands frequently and especially after diaper changes but not with antibacterial soap, which may kill the good bacteria.
  • Dry hands with paper towels and discard them after each use.
  • Avoid diaper wipes if the baby has a diaper rash. Instead, use a washcloth and water and apply a vinegar rinse.
  • Let the baby go without a diaper whenever possible. Cloth diapers are preferable over disposables.

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Can I still breastfeed if my baby has thrush?

Breastfeeding doesn’t have to be interrupted if one or both of you have been diagnosed with thrush, but the condition can make feeding painful for you — another reason why prompt treatment for both of you is needed.

One thing that can help if you’re breastfeeding with thrush, provided you have the privacy and cooperative weather, is exposing your nipples to sunlight for a few minutes each day since yeast hates the sun. Probiotics may help speed recovery and keep yeast at bay too, and they’re safe to take while you’re breastfeeding. Even if your baby is irritable during feedings, keep offering the breast or bottle, if you’re pumping or formula-feeding. Once the treatment kicks in and her symptoms start to subside, she’ll be back to eating normally again before you know it.

Although oral thrush in babies is common, it can cause some discomfort. But by following a strict hygiene regimen and contacting a doctor at the first hint of thrush, nursing can still be an enjoyable bonding experience for mother and baby.

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