Oral Thrush in Babies: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

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Everyone's mouth is home to millions of organisms, some of which are good and some bad. For most individuals, a healthy immune system keeps the harmful ones at bay. However, one fungal organism that can easily take over in the oral cavity is Candida albicans, better known as thrush, explains the Mayo Clinic. This overgrowth of yeast in a baby's mouth is a common condition that mothers and their newborns sometimes face.

Causes of Oral Thrush in Babies

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 anemic or diabetic have a higher risk of contracting a yeast infection that can result in oral thrush for their baby.

Signs of Oral Thrush

Creamy white lesions on the inside of the baby's mouth and trouble sucking or feeding, along with irritability and fussiness, are signs of oral thrush in an infant. Some babies can slip off the breast or make a clicking sound when attempting to nurse. A diaper rash that doesn't go away with commonly suggested ointments can also be a symptom of thrush, as can gas due to excessive yeast in the baby's gastrointestinal tract, says Mother & Child Health.

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

Treating Oral Thrush

Because it's so easily passed between a nursing mother and her baby, any signs of thrush in the baby's mouth or on a mother's breasts should be seen and treated by a doctor right away. Both should be treated at the same time to prevent any further reinfection, notes Mother & Child Health. Usually, treatment continues for one to two weeks after all symptoms have gone away, and breastfeeding doesn't have to stop since most courses of treatment are compatible with nursing.

Nystatin oral drops are a common treatment for the baby, while a cream version of the medication is prescribed for the mother's breasts. If the mother's milk ducts are involved, an oral medication will be needed to reach those areas. Other available solutions may be recommended by the doctor.

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.

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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