How to Give Birth With the Flu

Why yes, this headline is absurd. And if you found this article by way of a Google search, you are living in a world of absurdity right now.

I’m writing this article because I needed this information 9 months ago, when I gave birth with the flu.

I was 39 weeks, 6 days pregnant when I woke up from a failed night’s sleep in our recliner, snotty with a cold washcloth over my eyes. I was momentarily confused about whose body I was living in. Like how Kristen Stewart couldn’t figure out why she felt so horrid before giving birth to her vampire baby (or something like that, not that I watched Twilight…).

My husband drove me to an Urgent Care where they diagnosed me with Influenza Type A. Yes, I’d had my flu shot.

I‘ll always remember the remorse on the face of the PA who broke the news to me. I knew deep down it was the flu—103 fever, chills, vomiting, chest cough, swollen glands and unrelenting body aches—but hearing someone in the medical field actually diagnose it was a punch in the gut. The timing was too uncanny. I’d had the flu one other time in my life, twenty years earlier.

I was given Tamiflu and advised to “try and keep the baby in” for just 3 more days until the worst symptoms were over. Just three more…

My water broke 12 hours later. The baby was like:

I delivered my second baby, a VBAC, after 17 hours of labor.

While my medical staff was wonderful, many of them expressed how they’d not seen any cases of mothers birthing babies with the active flu, during the first 1–3 days of onset when symptoms are most severe. I watched seasoned nurses and doctors mull over hospital manuals while they helped me count through contractions. They looked at me with a mixture of pity, confusion and awe. (Ladies, these bodies we live in…Yes, they can be assholes sometimes, but damn they’re amazing.)

I’m writing this article because I desperately wanted to find some information on this when I got home from Urgent Care and collapsed on the couch, cozied up next to my puke can. I hope this helps someone else out there.

I am not a doctor, doula, nurse or medical practitioner of any kind. I’m a 30-something, healthy female who had her flu shot, but got the flu anyways, and then pushed a large human out of her body. Please use this information as a resource to ask your doctor for more details specific to your circumstances.

With that disclaimer out of the way, here’s how you’ll see information organized:

I. Your Mind
II. Your Drug Store Visit
III. Your Delivery / Things to Ask at the Hospital
IV. Your Post-Delivery Care

I. Your Mind

Please do not skip this part. Your mind is central to survival, both in this situation and any stressful life event.

There were two stages I went through when I received the flu diagnosis; you might too.

Stage 1: Anger

Who gets the flu at 40 weeks?! When they had a flu shot?! In the springtime?! At the tail end of flu season?!

There’s limited time to be angry and you need your energy for more productive things, but let yourself feel whatever it is you need to. I felt angry at the timing, angry that this delivery would not go as I’d hoped, just like my first. Angry at myself for working up to my delivery date rather than resting on a mountain of scented pillows. Angry that I didn’t have the immune system to fight it.

Cry. Curse. Scream. Watch and observe your emotions. Allow those negative emotions to run through you — and past you — like you’re observing a leaf float down a stream. This isn’t hippie shit, trust me. Try it.

I understand it feels like your body has turned against you. But she hasn’t. She is strong underneath, working hard. The flu has only weakened her at the surface.

Stage 2: Surrender

When I felt most helpless and broken throughout labor, I’d close my eyes and see the word “Surrender.” It was in white text on a black background. Over and over again, I saw this word when I closed my eyes. So now I am here to tell you:

You will get through this. It will end. You cannot undo being sick. Surrender to this minute. It is temporary. It will end. Surrender your birth plan. Float.
It will end.

Your Drug Store Visit

Every doctor has those “safe to take while pregnant” medication lists. These can vary by medical practice and every woman is different. Definitely call your doctor to confirm what’s best for you.

Here was my regime that you can use as a checklist to inquire about.

1. Tamiflu

You’ll likely be put on Tamiflu as soon as possible. You need a prescription. Tamiflu helps reduce the duration and severity of flu symptoms, but it must be taken within the first few days of onset. So don’t delay getting a flu test if you think you have symptoms.

The people I was in contact with most—my husband and 3-year old—were prescribed Tamiflu immediately to proactively get ahead of it. These were the people who would also be in contact with the newborn.

2. Mucinex

I was taking Mucinex DM around the clock. Talk to your doctor and make sure you’re taking the right kind of Mucinex for your symptoms. The Mucinex home page has a handy interactive tool that will tell you what kind you need based on symptoms.

I needed the kind with an expectorant to help break up the gunk in my lungs, as well as the cough suppressant.

3. Chest Rub + Rice Sock

My throat felt like a tractor trailer ran over it while speeding down a mountain and then threw on its emergency brakes. My chest sounded like crackling wrapping paper when I inhaled. The chest rub helped a little, but not a ton. When I warmed up a rice sock and placed it on my chest with the rub? Now that was cozy. I could finally sleep. I snuggled that rice sock like a teddy bear.

4. Tylenol

Tylenol for the obvious body aches, pain and fever reducer. When you push that baby out, you’ll be able to use Tylenol AND Ibuprofen! Lord, that Ibuprofen…it’s right around the corner.

5. Cooling Strips for Head

These Be Kool strips were magical. They stick to your head (unlike a regular ice pack) so you can sleep on your side with your giant belly propped up with pillows.

I also put a strip on the back of my neck. I wore these during labor for comfort.

6. Face Masks

Stock up on these. Be prepared to wear a face mask while you’re in the hospital and for the days after delivery. My husband and family also had to wear one, not just in the hospital, but once we were home.

I know this isn’t going to be fun, but be prepared to hold your baby for the first time wearing this mask so you don’t pass the flu on to him/her. It sucks, but there will be plenty of time to slather that chunk of baby flesh with lots of wet, non-flu kisses soon enough.

7. Hand Sanitizer

Get multiple pump bottles of hand sanitizer to have all over the house, where ever you’ll be sitting while nursing/feeding the babe.

Things to Ask About at the Hospital

Here’s a list of questions I wish I’d asked or that I was happy I did ask.

  • What other comfort medication can I take for these flu symptoms?
    Make sure your spouse / partner / doula is keeping a log of your medications, including dosage and the time you last took it. I know the hospital already does this, but they’re not used to tracking flu-related medications in addition to the typical birthing mom medications. I had to ask for my round of Mucinex multiple times. Girl needs her Mucinex. On. Schedule.
  • Can I have extra fluids? 
    The hospital staff already knows to do this, but it never hurts to confirm since you’re likely super dehydrated. You need those fluids.
  • Should I adjust my birth plan?
    I’d planned, along with my doula, to walk and move as much as possible during contractions to help with pain management. This simply wasn’t possible— I didn’t even have the energy to stand and walk to the bathroom unassisted. Be open to how you might need to change your birth plan given your new reality. Be kind to yourself. Surrender.
  • What is the hospital policy on flu moms holding their baby ?
    This is where I cried a lot. Be prepared to think through this. I’m so sorry you have to. Each hospital has their own policy about whether a flu-ridden mother can/should hold her baby while still showing flu symptoms, especially a fever.
  • How will the flu affect my milk supply?
    The flu will likely impact how quickly your milk comes in. This is because your body is hella busy trying to keep both you and the baby alive. Please be kind to yourself and give yourself time. I had to supplement early on during this waiting period; again, never part of the plan. But surrender.
  • Before I’m discharged, can you check my iron?
    Here’s why….

Your Post Delivery Care

Watch For Signs of Anemia

You lose blood delivering a baby. Your iron depletes when your body is fighting illnesses like the flu. These two things combined mean your iron could plummet. Mine did. And I only learned this after going through a bunch of tests, including being tested for a pulmonary embolism (terrifying), because I was having symptoms that resembled it…like not being able to stand / walk very far, getting winded very quickly, light headedness, exhaustion (ha!), heart palpitations.

My iron had gotten so low it was near blood transfusion level…if only I’d gotten it checked earlier! Like before getting discharged or something. My mom mentioned something in passing to the PA running all these tests about my iron being low when I was a teen. Low and behold, that was it.

Watch for Sadness & Grief

It’s becoming more common to openly address the complex emotions after childbirth and during pregnancy. I received so many, “You’re such a badass for delivering a baby with the flu!” and “OMG! He is SO PERFECT!” but nothing could touch the deep well of sadness I felt those weeks/months after birth. My body had been through trauma.

I became, on an inexplicable level, deeply sad that his birth was not what I envisioned it would be. That I missed so much those first weeks because my body was so broken from the delivery and flu complications (early onset pneumonia, etc.).

My OB scheduled a post-delivery appointment with me two weeks after being released from the hospital, and this topic of grief came up.

I can’t express how grateful I am that she initiated this 2-week check-in rather than the typical 6-week post-delivery check-up. Ladies, ASK FOR THIS. Especially if you’ve had a complicated birth.

Let People Help

I will never forget all the things my family and friends did for us during this crazy time. Saying “thank you” isn’t enough. The things they cooked and cleaned and delivered. I don’t like the feeling of watching people do things for me as I sit helpless. It was a lesson in humility to receive so many gifts and have nothing to offer in return. Maybe my luck catching the flu 40 weeks pregnant was a way to remind me of how very lucky I am.

If you are a super pregnant lady on the couch with the flu, snuggling that puke can. Aching, crying, coughing. I am with you. And I am you.

I am you exactly 9 months from now. Your baby is upstairs sleeping. You are sitting on the couch, healthy, with a grateful heart. With an empty glass of wine.

This will be you soon, I promise, dear friend. For now, surrender.