Breastfeeding during the Covid-19 pandemic: Is it safe?

Health, according to the World Health Organization, is “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity”.[1] A variety of definitions have been used for different purposes over time. Health can be promoted by encouraging healthful activities, such as regular physical exercise and adequate sleep,[2] and by reducing or avoiding unhealthful activities or situations, such as smoking or excessive stress. Some factors affecting health are due to individual choices, such as whether to engage in a high-risk behavior, while others are due to structural causes, such as whether the society is arranged in a way that makes it easier or harder for people to get necessary healthcare services. Still other factors are beyond both individual and group choices, such as genetic disorders.

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Covid-19 has caused several side-effects in the bodies of people, but does it also have an impact on breastfeeding? Let’s find out now!

The Covid-19 pandemic has posed several challenges to the provision of newborn nutrition and care interventions, including maternal support, breastfeeding, and family participatory care. Despite the guidelines regarding breastfeeding practices, there are many concerns about protecting infants from their infected mothers.

As Covid-19 cases are rising once more, and the emergence of its new variant Omicron, concerned people have this question on their mind: Should mothers who are suspected or confirmed Covid-19 patients breastfeed?

Breastfeeding is the cornerstone of infant and young child survival, nutrition and development, and maternal health. However, concerns have been raised about whether breastfeeding mothers with Covid-19 can transmit the SARS-CoV-2 virus to their infants.

The World Health Organization recommends that mothers with suspected or confirmed Covid-19 should be encouraged to initiate or continue to breastfeed. Mothers should be counseled that the benefits of breastfeeding substantially outweigh the potential risks for transmission.

Can a Covid-19 positive mother transmit the virus to the newborn baby?

At present, data is not sufficient to conclude vertical transmission of Covid-19 through breastfeeding. It is still not clear whether the virus can or cannot be transmitted through breast milk. Current evidence suggests that breast milk is not likely to spread the virus to babies and that the risk of a newborn getting COVID-19 from their mother is low, especially when the mother takes steps ( such as wearing a mask and washing hands) to prevent spread before and during care of the newborn.

Should newborn babies be fed breast milk or substitute?

Breast milk is the best nutrition for infant growth and development and is also rich in antibodies that provide the first source of adaptive immunity in a newborn’s intestinal tract.

covid-19 and breast freeding
Breastfeed your child for optimum growth and development. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

In preterm or low birth weight newborns, a mother’s own expressed milk is the first choice. When it is unavailable, donor breast milk is considered as the next best choice. For healthy newborns whose mothers are unable to provide sufficient breast milk, the current option of choice is infant formula.

Importance of breastfeeding in the golden hour

As per WHO recommendations, mothers should be encouraged to initiate breastfeeding within the first hour of life and continue exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months. This can be followed by continued breastfeeding with appropriate complementary foods for up to 2 years and beyond. Exclusive breastfeeding means that the infant receives only breast milk.

How to make breastfeeding more manageable for mothers with C-sec deliveries

  • Start breastfeeding as soon as possible after your C-section. If you can’t breastfeed right away, ask to hold your baby skin-to-skin. Put the baby to the breast as soon as you safely can.
covid-19 and breast feeding
Here’s why WHO is suggesting covid-19 shouldn’t come in the way of breastfeeding. Image courtesy: Shutterstock
  • Get help positioning your baby. Not only will you have an abdominal incision to protect, but you may have an IV line and a blood pressure cuff, too. The nurses and hospital lactation consultants can show you comfortable breastfeeding holds you may not have known about. As you recover from your C-section, certain breastfeeding positions (out of 11) will be more comfortable than others. Two positions that are usually best for post-C-section breastfeeding are the side-lying position and football hold. In these positions, your baby doesn’t make contact with your incision.
  • Take your pain medication
  • Keep your baby with you as much as possible.
  • Contact a breastfeeding consultant. If you can’t solve a breastfeeding problem on your own, it may be time to get an expert involved. Usually, the sooner you address a breastfeeding concern, the easier it will be to solve.

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