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Experts say breastfeeding can be safe during COVID-19 with precautions such as washing hands and breasts with soap and water. Getty Images
  • Experts say there is no evidence to suggest that breastfeeding during the COVID-19 pandemic is unsafe.
  • They say that breastfeeding is safe even if a mother has the novel coronavirus.
  • They say breastfeeding can provide an infant with antibodies as well as nutritional benefits.
  • It also promotes a bond between mother and child.

Experts are saying that breastfeeding during the COVID-19 pandemic is safe.

Even birthing parents who contracted the novel coronavirus are unlikely to transmit it to their newborn if certain precautions are followed, according to a new study published in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health journal.

Precautions include hand and breast washing as well as wearing a surgical mask during feeding times.

The study sampled 120 babies born to mothers with COVID-19. None of the infants developed the disease during childbirth or in the 2 weeks after birth, even with most of the mothers breastfeeding, having skin-to-skin contact, and sharing a room with their babies.

The small, observational study reflects the updated guidance set forth by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

“To date, breast milk is considered to be an unlikely source of transmission of SARS-CoV-2, and the AAP strongly supports breastfeeding as the best choice for infant feeding,” the organization’s website states.

This current information overrides early pandemic practice where COVID-19 positive mothers and their newborns were sometimes separated after birth to avoid risk of transmission.

In fact, some experts are now saying that breastfeeding with COVID-19 can provide the newborn with antibodies that are protective against the novel coronavirus.

Amy Lewis is a certified labor doula, postpartum and infant care doula, postpartum specialist, and lactation counselor, as well as the co-owner of Buddha Belly Birth Services in Tampa, Florida.

Lewis told Healthline that the first thing new mothers need to know is that breastfeeding is one of the most, if not the single most, protective things that mothers can offer their baby.

For her, the latest information on the novel coronavirus has not changed this fact.

Why?

“Because first of all, the dynamic nature of breast milk, which is probiotic, prebiotic, and antibiotic, but also because of the feedback loop that the mother and baby’s bodies engage in when a baby is feeding directly at the breast,” Lewis said.

“Mother’s nipples have receptor sites for enzymes in their baby’s saliva and when the mother’s brain detects certain features of the enzyme from saliva, that can change the nature of the milk that her body produces for her baby,” she added.

In the case of COVID-19 positive mothers, Lewis said the feedback loop can tell the mother’s body to make more antibodies against the novel coronavirus.

“This is an amazing thing for every baby, but especially for babies of mothers who are COVID positive because we know that, to a certain extent, her body is starting to make antibodies for the virus to work at fighting off the virus,” Lewis said.

However, Dr. Jorge E. Perez, a neonatologist who founded Kidz Medical Services in South Florida, tells Healthline that it is not yet known whether the infectious virus is secreted in breast milk nor whether protective antibodies are found.

The issue of mother-to-baby transmission has been a key focus of his research since the first news reports about the novel coronavirus appeared in the United States in January.

Nevertheless, Perez said, “Breastfeeding is currently not contraindicated as long as moms follow current recommendations.”

Such recommendations include washing hands and breasts with soap and water and wearing a mask while nursing.

Dr. Megan Gray, an OB-GYN at Orlando Health Physician Associates in Florida, also supports and encourages skin-to-skin contact and breastfeeding in mothers with COVID-19.

“Right now, the numbers of women who are pregnant with COVID-19 in our data count are low,” Gray told Healthline.

“There has been no significant data that supports transmission of COVID-19 from mom to baby in utero, during skin-to-skin contact, or while breastfeeding,” she added.

According to Gray, the benefits of skin-to-skin contact and breastfeeding include:

  • encouraging maternal-infant bonding
  • calming baby
  • helping baby regulate temperature and blood sugar
  • providing baby with antibodies to help fight infections
  • decreasing the risk of severe respiratory complications
  • improving overall sense of well-being in mother via the release of oxytocin

“However, it is important to ask your physician about current recommendations because, as the numbers increase, we may start to uncover different trends,” she said.

Perez shared the same note of caution.

“Moms must also stay vigilant to physician and CDC recommendations, as the science behind this virus is ever evolving,” he said.

Currently, the World Health Organization recommends that mothers with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 should be encouraged to initiate or continue to breastfeed.

Additionally, mothers should be counseled that the benefits of breastfeeding substantially outweigh the potential risks for transmission.

Not all mothers will be breastfeeding their newborns during the pandemic.

“If an infected mother chooses not to nurse her newborn, she may express breast milk after appropriate hand hygiene, and the expressed breast milk may be fed to the infant by other uninfected caregivers,” said Perez.

“Mothers of NICU infants may express breast milk for their infants during any time that their infection status prohibits their presence in the NICU,” he added.

Gray says if the mother chooses to pump, the bottles should be sterilized prior to collection of breast milk.

“Proper handwashing and washing of the breast should be performed prior to using a breast pump, and handwashing should be performed prior to handling breast milk,” she said.

Moreover, “All pump parts that come in contact with the breast should be washed after use,” she added.

But let’s say that a COVID-19 positive new mother is ill and is not able to feed her baby or express milk because she’s on a ventilator.

“The next thing that should be offered is donor breast milk,” said Lewis.

“That term alarms people sometimes until they understand what donor breast milk is and that donor breast milk is screened at a human milk bank,” she explained.

“The donors are screened for disease but also for medication use and drug use and those kinds of things,” she added. “So on the front end, there’s this sort of process that they go through. And then secondly, donor milk is homogenized, so it’s sterilized.”

“And so this would kill any potential pathogens that are in the milk,” noted Lewis.

Now, Lewis says that if all those three options are not available, then a properly prepared formula is a healthy option for a baby.

“Again, it’s not just my recommendation, that’s from the World Health Organization for all babies,” she said.

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