CONWAY, S.C. (WBTW) – More one-on-one time with babies, combined with working from home, may be contributing to an increase in the amount of people exclusively breastfeeding, or choosing to breastfeed for longer.

In 2019, 71% of mothers chose to start breastfeeding while they were at Conway Medical Center. That rate has increased to 80%, according to Laura Baisch, a lactation consultant at Conway Medical Center.

The hospital is also seeing more mothers plan to exclusively breastfeed their newborns. In 2019, that rate was at 18%. Now, it’s reached 39.8%.

The increase may be due to visitor restrictions in hospitals that were spurred by the pandemic, Baisch said, because new parents don’t have as many distractions and have more alone time with their newborns.

“I think they can focus a lot more on it, so that has definitely improved our numbers,” she said. 

It’s suggested for babies to be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of their baby’s life, since human milk is the “gold standard” for feeding an infant, Baisch said. But mothers would often tell her that they only exclusively breastfed while they were on maternity leave.

With working from home, higher rates of mothers are exclusively breastfeeding for longer, because they’re in a more private and comfortable environment.

Legally, businesses have to provide a private area with electricity for breastfeeding mothers.

“Some places take those guidelines very literal,” said Larissa Luce, the owner of Lullababy Lactation Consultants, which serves customers in Horry and Georgetown counties. “And other companies do so much better where they have a nice, comfortable area. They might even have some snacks.”

That area cannot be a bathroom.

However, she’s heard an opposite trend about breastfeeding – that with in-person support groups suspended due to the pandemic, and changes in hospitals, fewer mothers are choosing it.

One study published in the International Breastfeeding Journal, for example, found a decrease in breastfeeding in Italy during its 2020 shutdown. 

“I think that the drop in breastfeeding is, part of it, is they are not getting the support in-hospital like they used to, because a lot of these hospitals are kicking moms out real fast to get bed turnover,” Luce said.

She also heard from mothers at the beginning of the pandemic who were worried about if they could breastfeed – or even be near their babies – if they had COVID-19.

Rumors and misinformation, she said, make educating about the benefits of breastfeeding crucial. Antibodies in breast milk protect babies against illness, which are then passed along to newborns.

“It is one of the best protectors from infection that you can give your baby,” Luce said. 

She’s seen a boost in virtual lactation consulting, which has expanded the geographic spread of her client base. Even though she isn’t physically there during those sessions, she’s able to give directions.

“It’s definitely been a challenge with the virtual, which can sometimes be tricky, because you want to get in, and get hands-on, and help and maneuver,” she said.

She said virtual sessions, however, have allowed moms to keep receiving lactation services, and have been an empowering experience.

While she’s seen her numbers stay steady, she said that she’s seeing mothers plan to breastfeed for longer than they did pre-pandemic. Working from home, she said, has helped with those who planned to exclusively breastfeed only when they were on maternity leave.

She urges businesses to be aware of laws around breastfeeding employees, which can lead to allowing mothers to feel supported enough to breastfeed for longer.

Conway Medical Center has seen the early COVID-19 fears and rumors settle down.

“I know when initially the pandemic started, I think a lot more people were a lot more concerned because they didn’t know,” Baisch said.

Now, studies have reaffirmed the existing knowledge about antibodies in breast milk. Antibodies from vaccines are also passed along to the baby through breast milk.

While more moms are choosing to breastfeed, or breastfeed for longer, there are also more who are feeding their babies both human milk and formula – instead of exclusively using formula.

“If a mom is kind of on the fence about it, and worried about this time during the pandemic, know that her body, her breastmilk is going to be the additional defense to fight off any infection the baby might have, or develop later on,” she said.