What You Need to Know About Breastfeeding in an Era of COVID-19
You’re doing a great job of protecting yourself and others from the new coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. You’re following all the guidelines, including physical distancing and washing your hands frequently. But what’s the deal with breastfeeding during this time?
Fortunately, protecting your little ones is similar to protecting yourself, even when it comes to your very little one who’s breastfeeding.
Keep in mind that scientists are still learning about this new virus, and medical research is ongoing. But from what experts know so far, it’s safe to breastfeed your baby. However, this situation calls for some special precautions, especially if you have any symptoms of the novel coronavirus disease COVID-19.
Does SARS-CoV-2 pass into breast milk?
Some encouraging news: Researchers haven’t yet found SARS-CoV-2 in breast milk, though research is limited.
Two case studies — yes, just two, which is not enough to draw conclusions — from China report that the new coronavirus wasn’t found in the breast milk of either woman who became ill with COVID-19 late in their last trimester.
Both women had healthy babies who didn’t have a coronavirus infection. The mothers avoided skin contact with their newborn babies and isolated themselves until they recovered.
Additionally, while we are still learning about SARS-CoV-2, scientists do know its closest relative, SARS-CoV, very well. This coronavirus hasn’t been found in breast milk, either.
But more medical studies are needed. Call your doctor if you’re unsure about whether to breastfeed your baby.
So with this in mind, what are the guidelines for breastfeeding?
If you can breastfeed your baby, it’s important to keep it up. But there are special guidelines to protect your baby during this pandemic.
Researchers know that SARS-CoV-2 is spread mainly through tiny droplets in the air when a person who’s carrying the virus sneezes, coughs, or talks. In fact, this virus likes to move into the nose before it even causes symptoms in some people.
Unfortunately, you can pass the virus on before you get symptoms, and even if you never have symptoms but are carrying it.
While we’ve already established that you likely can’t pass on the new coronavirus through your breast milk, you can still pass it through droplets from your mouth and nose or by touching your little one after coming in contact with your face or these droplets.
So it’s especially important to follow these guidelines if you have COVID-19 symptoms or think you might have been exposed to the virus:
Wash your hands
You would wash your hands carefully before touching your baby in any case. Now, it’s vital to wash your hands frequently, especially before and after you pick up your baby or handle baby bottles and other baby items.
Wear a mask
Perhaps you’re already used to wearing one when you go out, but in your own house?! If you’re breastfeeding, then yes. If you have any symptoms of COVID-19 or have even an inkling that you may have it, wear a mask while you’re breastfeeding your baby. Wear it even if you don’t have symptoms.
Also, wear a mask while you are holding, changing, or talking to your baby. This will likely be uncomfortable for you — and startle or distract your little one at first — but it can help prevent a coronavirus infection.
Clean and disinfect anything you’ve touched with an alcohol-based cleaner. This includes countertops, changing tables, bottles, and clothing. Also, clean surfaces that you haven’t touched that might have air droplets on them.
Carefully clean and disinfect everything that might touch your baby. This virus can survive on some services for up to 48 to 72 hours!
Pump breast milk
You can also pump your breast milk and have your partner or a family member feed your baby. Don’t worry — this is temporary. Wash your hands and clean any area of skin the breast pump will touch.
Ensure that the bottle is completely sterile by placing it in boiled water between feedings. Disinfect the breast milk parts carefully with boiled water or soap and water.
Keep baby formula on hand
You don’t have to breastfeed if you feel you are ill or have symptoms of COVID-19. Keep baby formula and sterile baby bottles on hand ready to go, just in case.
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Will breast milk provide baby with any immunity?
Breast milk gives your child many of the super powers you have — like protection against several kinds of illnesses. Breast milk not only fills your baby’s hungry tummy, it also gives them automatic — but temporary — immunity against some bacteria and viruses.
And by the time your baby has outgrown breast milk, they’ll have had vaccinations that give them their own protection against most contagious illness.
Medical research from 2004Trusted Source on another kind of coronavirus (SARS-CoV) found antibodies to it in breast milk. Antibodies are like little soldiers that look for a certain kind of germ and get rid of it before it can cause harm. Your body makes antibodies when you contract an illness and when you get a vaccine for it.
Scientists don’t yet know if the body can also make antibodies for SARS-CoV-2 and share them through breast milk. If it can, this would mean that if you had this coronavirus infection, you’d be able to help protect your baby against an infection just by breastfeeding or pumping breast milk.
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What are the risks of breastfeeding at this time?
Talk to your doctor. They may tell you not to breastfeed your baby or give your baby pumped breast milk if you’re taking certain medications for a SARS-CoV-2 infection or other viral infection.
So while there’s currently no established treatment for COVID-19, it’s an evolving situation. Not all the drugs being considered as potential treatments have lactation data.
That means that for some — but not all — possible treatments, researchers don’t yet know if antiviral drugs can pass from mother to baby through breast milk.
Plus, some medications might make it difficult for you to breastfeed because they can slow down milk production. Definitely check with your doctor.
If you have severe COVID-19 symptoms, don’t try to breastfeed. You need your energy to help you recover from this infection.
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What we don’t know
Unfortunately, there’s still a lot we don’t know. Most international health organizations advise that breastfeeding is safe during this pandemic.
However, there’s a lot of ongoingTrusted Source medical research around the world to answer questions about SARS-CoV-2, including breastfeeding and babies. These questions include:
Can SARS-CoV-2 be passed through breast milk at all? (Remember, current research is limited.) What if the mother has a lot of viruses in her body?
Can antibodies to help protect against SARS-CoV-2 be passed from mother to baby through breast milk?
Can mother or babies get a coronavirus infection more than once?
Can pregnant mothers give their babies a coronavirus infection before they’re born?
What following precautions — without sacrificing bonding — looks like
As we self-isolate to protect ourselves, our families, and everyone else, some things are definitely very different. This includes breastfeeding your little bundle of joy and hope. Don’t worry. This is all temporary. Meanwhile, here’s what breastfeeding (or bottle-feeding) your baby may look like for now.
You hear your little one stirring in their crib. You know they’re about to let out the hungry cry, but you take a few minutes to carefully wash your hands with warm water and soap.
You don your face mask, carefully touching the elastic ties that go around your ears only. This virus travels speedily through tiny droplets from the mouth and nose.
You put on a pair of sterile gloves to open the door to your baby’s room and turn off the baby monitor. Coronaviruses can live on plastic, stainless steel, and cardboard surfaces.
You take off the gloves carefully without touching the outsides — you don’t want to re-infect your hands. You smile with your eyes, softly calling baby’s name, as you lean over to pick up your angel. Your baby doesn’t notice the mask — they’re used to it by now, and besides, they’re hungry.
Your baby snuggles into your lap, “tummy to mommy,” and they’re ready to eat. You avoid touching your own face and your baby’s face, gently caressing their back instead.
As your baby feeds, you keep your hands and attention on them. Touching your phone, laptop, or anything else risks infecting your clean hands and baby. You and your little one relax and bond as they feed themselves into a peaceful slumber.
Yeah, we know. Relaxation and peaceful slumbers are the stuff wishful thinking dreams are made of — coronavirus era or not. But our point is, you don’t have to miss out on bonding while taking precautions.
Most health experts advise that breastfeeding is safe during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. According to some health organizations, mothers who have COVID-19 symptoms may even still be able to feed. However, a lot is currently unknown about this new coronavirus.
Much more research is needed, and some recommendations are conflicting. For example, doctors in China who treated women with newborns while fighting COVID-19 don’t advise breastfeeding if you have symptoms or may have a SARS-CoV-2 infection.
Talk to your doctor if you have COVID-19, if you have been exposed to someone with COVID-19, or you have symptoms. You can choose not to breastfeed or pump breast milk until you feel it’s safe to do so.
Last medically reviewed on April 9, 2020
Medically reviewed by Meredith Goodwin, MD, FAAFP
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