SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — Despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the medical community agrees that breastfeeding is still safe and healthy for both the mother and baby.
Organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Academy of Family Physicians, have stated in guidance as recent as June 9 that they recommend women continue feeding their child via breastfeeding during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Doing so offers many benefits, experts say.
“Breastfeeding is the best source of nutrition for the babies; it protects them from several illnesses,” international board-certified lactation consultant Shawntay Gadson told WSAV.com NOW.
Lactation consultants like Gadson, who helps families in Memorial Health’s neonatal intensive care unit, serve as the designated support system for the mom to help her reach her breastfeeding goals.
“[Breastfeeding] also decreases the mom’s the risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer,” said Gadson, who works closely with the Racial and Ethnic Approach to Community Health (REACH) team of Project HOPE, or Healthy Opportunities Powering Equity, which is supported by the YMCA of Coastal Georgia and Healthy Savannah.
Current medical guidance states that it’s fine for mothers to breastfeed even if they have a confirmed case of COVID-19.
Gadson says she and other medical experts are consistently staying on top of the latest guidelines to make sure this remains the case.
“The CDC states that the virus that causes COVID-19 only occurs through respiratory droplets, so there’s no evidence or research that states that COVID-19 pass through breast milk,” Gadson said.
The few studies out there have found no presence of SARS-CoV-2 in breast milk, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Holly McSpadden, the senior lactation consultant at Memorial Health, agrees that the limited data seems to suggest a low chance of mothers spreading the virus to a child via breast milk.
“Based on how other viruses get into babies, they don’t go in through the breast milk, and mothers make antibodies in response to exposures,” McSpadden said. “They have those antibodies in their breast milk that help protect the baby.”
She says she understands mothers may be worried about possibly infecting their child during feeding, which is why lactation consultants work to reassure them that breast milk is still safe.
“If there’s an exposure, it’s going to be between the mother and the baby,” McSpadden said.
Gadson says while some moms are concerned, she’s seen more mothers eager to breastfeed to help protect their children.
“They say, ‘you know what? If this is going to help my baby from getting COVID-19, then this is what I’m going to do, I’m going to breastfeed,’” Gadson said.
“So, instead of African-American moms saying, ‘I’m not going to breastfeed because of COVID-19,’ they’re saying, ‘I’m going to breastfeed, I’m going to pump milk for my baby so it can get those antibodies,’” she said.
That’s especially good news for Black mothers, who in general have been shown, via a report from the CDC, to have the lowest rates of initiating breastfeeding (60 percent) and continuing it at six months (28 percent) and 12 months (13 percent), compared to other racial and ethnic groups in the United States.
“Mainly, it’s the lack of support and education,” Gadson explained.
“Our goal with the REACH program is to get that education out there because in previous times, many moms were just not aware of the benefits of breastfeeding, so they don’t know to do it,” she said, adding, “basically, we want to educate those moms so they can be aware of the benefits of breastfeeding.”
Protecting breastfed babies from COVID-19
As there’s still a risk of the child contracting the illness from other sources, lactation consultants are taking precautions when working with nursing mothers.
“We’re wearing protective gear, PPE, we’re wearing a mask and goggles when we go into the room, and also, the moms are wearing masks,” Gadson said, noting that they’re ensuring everyone is also practicing good hand hygiene.
She advises that mothers clean their pumps before feeding their child. “We want to make sure that they’re sanitizing their equipment like they’re supposed to,” she said.
Gadson adds that if a mother is COVID-19 positive, it’s up to her caregivers to come up with a plan on whether the mom will directly breastfeed or pump milk to the baby.
“If the plan is to breastfeed, then we recommend that the mom wear a mask and just practice good hand hygiene,” she said.
“If caregiver says ‘it’s not safe if she has a baby in the NICU, and we’re just going to pump right now for this baby,’ then we will provide that mom with a dedicated pump for the duration of her stay, [along with] all of her supplies in her room while she’s at the hospital,” Gadson said. “When she leaves, of course, we’ll disinfect it.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) also suggests that babies born to COVID-19-positive mothers should be cared for by a healthy caregiver. “Mothers who are in the same household as their babies should maintain at least a six-foot distance whenever possible,” according to the AAP’s website.
AAP experts also recommend that mothers with COVID-19 wear masks and wash their hands thoroughly when handling their newborns until they have had no fever for at least 72 hours “and at least seven days have passed since symptoms first appeared.”