The postpartum period is a vulnerable and challenging time for all new moms, but especially so right now with the restrictions on care and resources available imposed by COVID-19. As uncertainty around how COVID-19 affects pregnant or breastfeeding women and infants continues, it is critical that new moms understand its known implications, how it can impact their breastfeeding journey and what they can do to prevent infecting themselves and their babies.
Should you continue breastfeeding during COVID-19?
According to Aeroflow Healthcare’s recent survey of new moms, 66% struggled with breastfeeding in their first six weeks postpartum, and now with hospitals limiting access to lactation consultants and most breastfeeding clinics only offering support virtually, this percentage has likely increased. Despite these obstacles, health authorities (AAP, WHO, CDC) have continued to recommend that mothers breastfeed through the pandemic to obtain the health benefits for both mom and baby.
Breastmilk contains antibodies that help your baby fight off viruses and bacteria and decreases your baby’s risk of developing asthma or allergies. Additionally, babies who are breastfed exclusively for the first 6 months have fewer ear infections, respiratory illnesses, and episodes of diarrhea. Breastfeeding not only lower risks of COVID-19 complications for an infant, but may also result in fewer hospitalizations and trips to the doctor.
What if I become infected while breastfeeding?
There is very limited information available regarding breastfeeding and COVID-19. Currently, there are no known cases of a mother with coronavirus passing it to her baby through breast milk. Although there are a few small reports of the virus has being found in the breast milk of mothers who test positive for coronavirus, but it’s been quite possible that the presence of COVID-19 antibodies might be present as well (which provide protection from infection).
Per the CDC, the limited data available suggests that it is not likely that mothers with COVID-19 can transmit the virus via breast milk. Since breast milk remains the best source of nutrition for most infants, it’s’site’s advised to continue breastfeeding—but to proceed with great caution to protect their infant.
Mothers who are infected, as well as those who are potentially infected, should follow all of the below guidelines before feeding your baby:
- Wash your hands using soap and water, especially if your hands are visibly soiled, before touching the infant.
- If soap and water are not available, use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
- Always wear a cloth face covering, or mask, while feeding at the breast.
If you’re pumping breast milk for your baby while infected, be sure to do the following:
- Clean your hands, as instructed above, before touching any pump or bottle parts and wear a cloth face covering.
- Make sure you’re aware of how to clean and sanitize breast pumps properly.
- Be sure to disinfect any milk collection containers and countertops/surfaces used.
- If possible, expressed breast milk should be fed to the infant by a healthy caregiver, who is not at high-risk for severe illness from COVID-19.
Additionally, and most importantly, you’ll want to alert your child’s healthcare provider if you believe you’ve been infected with COVID-19 or if your child has had high-risk contact with another individual who is believed to be infected with the virus. If your baby has had exposure to COVID-19, he or she (and you) will need to remain isolated at home until test results are available or an appropriate length of time has passed. Your child’s healthcare provider will also be able to provide recommendations to ease any potential symptoms, monitor your child’s condition, and help to prevent further spread.
COVID-19 Breastfeeding Precautions
To protect yourself:
- Be diligent about practicing good hand hygiene, and wash your hands often, especially before eating and after being out in public.
- Do not come near people who have been diagnosed with coronavirus or exposed to coronavirus and limit contact with others who are currently sick (i.e., with a fever and cough). Also, consider avoiding places and gatherings with large crowds, especially if events are indoors.
To protect your newborn:
- Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer every time you touch your baby.
- Limit visitors in the first few weeks after giving birth and make sure that people who have recently been sick/or possibly exposed to COVID-19 do not visit. Visitors wearing masks will not be enough to protect a newborn from this virus.
- If you are pumping breast milk, make sure to clean and disinfect your pump and all parts before and after every use.
- Call your baby’s doctor if you have any concerns about his or her symptoms, including a fever, quick breathing, cough, or refusing to eat.
While the chances of a newborn getting sick from the virus are low, there is always a risk of community-acquired spread, and new moms need to take the proper precautions to protect themselves and their babies. If you do become infected, you and your baby will more than likely be okay, as the mortality rate for coronavirus is very low in infants, children and women of child-bearing age.
This can be an especially scary time for new moms. Fortunately, as long as you follow CDC guidelines and take care of yourself and your baby, the coronavirus pandemic should not be a huge hindrance to your beautiful breastfeeding journey.
Jessica Madden, MD, is the Medical Director at Aeroflow Breastpumps, and she is a board-certified pediatrician and neonatologist who has been taking care of newborn babies for over 15 years. She is currently on staff in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio, and has experience working in NICUs in the Boston Children’s Hospital and Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital networks. Dr. Madden provides in-home newborn medicine and lactation support through Primrose Newborn Care, a small business that she opened in 2018. In her free time, she enjoys traveling, yoga, reading, and spending time with her four school-aged children.