You have probably heard the phrase “Breast is best” before. No matter how big a cliché it has become, it is true, which is why this week is International Breastfeeding Awareness Week. Breastfeeding is one of the most effective ways to ensure a child’s health and survival. Breastmilk is the ideal food for babies. It is safe, clean, contains antibodies that protect against common childhood illnesses and is free. But does this remain true if breastfeeding during COVID-19?
According to the WHO: “Breastmilk provides all the energy and nutrients that the infant needs for the first months of life, and it continues to provide up to half or more of a child’s nutritional needs during the second half of the first year, and up to one third during the second year of life”.
However, there are risks associated with breastfeeding. For example, certain foods (caffeine, alcohol) and medications can make their way to the milk and harm the infant. The table below indicates some of these interactions:
There is also the issue of being HIV positive. An HIV positive mother may pass on the virus to the child through breastmilk. Although, the risk is much reduced if the mother is put on a regime of ARVs. If you are HIV positive and pregnant or have an infant, you must immediately speak to your health care provider.
Breastfeeding and COVID-19
How does all this tie in with COVID-19? According to the WHO, breastfeeding is the cornerstone of healthy infancy as well as maternal health. However, concerns have been raised on the safety of breastfeeding in the COVID-19 pandemic. The main concern is whether the virus can be transmitted to infants in breastmilk—the WHO advises on a holistic approach to deciding on whether to breastfeed or not. The risks of doing so must be weighed up against the risks of not doing so. That is to say that the potential risks of the infant being infected must be considered against the morbidity and mortality associated that are associated with not breastfeeding. Also included in this decision is measuring the inappropriate use of infant formula milk and the protective effects of skin-to-skin contact.
The WHO recommends that breastfeeding should continue or be initiated whether the mother or child have suspected or confirmed COVID-19 or not. The benefits of breastfeeding substantially outweigh the potential risks for transmission. Mother and infant should remain together and still practice skin-to-skin contact (including kangaroo care). This is especially important immediately after birth and during the establishment of breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding and the COVID-19 vaccine
The next important question is whether it is safe or advisable to breastfeed after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. Unfortunately, following established norms for clinical trials, pregnant and breastfeeding people were not included in any of the trials for COVID-19 vaccines. So, as the vaccine started getting administered, breastfeeding moms worldwide were left to make the decision in the dark.
The good news!
Several small but definitive studies show that the vaccine does not show up in breastmilk. Instead, they have found antibodies produced by mothers in response to inoculations to the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. However, it is important to note that so far, scientists have only looked at the vaccines made by Pfizer–BioNTech and Moderna.
Visit breastfeedingpartners.org for details on themes and how to get involved!