Is it safe to breastfeed during the pandemic?

is it safe to breastfeed coronavirus pandemic
Photo via Alachua County/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
  • Mothers who tested positive in this study did not infect their newborns
  • At their one-month checkups, all the babies were growing appropriately
  • The study, as noted, had a few limitations

A new study suggests that breastfeeding mothers who have contracted COVID-19 are highly unlikely to pass the virus to their newborn babies, as long as extra safety measures are taken. So yes, it appears safe to breastfeed during the pandemic.

Published in The Lancet journal in July, the study observed patients at three New York City hospitals who gave birth between March 22 and May 17. Out of 1,481 deliveries, 166 mothers tested positive for the coronavirus. A total of 120 babies were monitored, and none of them showed symptoms during delivery or in the two-week period following childbirth.

During the observation period, mothers were permitted to breastfeed and practice skin-to-skin contact, provided that they wore a surgical mask whenever they were near their baby and washed their hands and breasts prior to nursing. They were also allowed to share a room at the hospital with their newborns, who had to be kept in enclosed cribs six feet away from the mother’s bed when they weren’t being fed.

All babies in the study were checked for COVID-19 24 hours after birth, and none tested positive. Of the 120 babies, 79 were tested again 5-7 days after birth, and 72 were tested after 14 days. In both instances, none showed symptoms of the virus nor tested positive for the disease. Fifty-three babies received their one-month check-up via telemedicine and all were found to be clinically well and growing appropriately.

The study had a few limitations, it noted. About one-third of the 120 babies were not brought in for a follow-up coronavirus test after birth, and the authors think that might be due to parental fear of being outside in public during the height of the pandemic. They were also unable to screen the babies’ blood, urine, or stool samples for the virus “due to absence of approved testing for these samples during the study period.”

According to Live Science, the authors of the study hoped their work would provide new mothers with a sense of relief that the risk of passing on COVID-19 to newborns is very low and that breastfeeding is safe. “We know that skin-to-skin contact and breastfeeding are important both for mother-infant bonding and for long-term child health,” Dr. Patricia DeLaMora, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist and the co-lead author of the study, said in a statement. “Our findings suggest that babies born to mothers with COVID-19 infection can still benefit from these safely, if appropriate infection control measures are followed.”

In April, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended that, given the contagious nature of COVID-19, the best way to prevent newborn infants from contracting the disease was to temporarily separate them from their infected mothers. The AAP has since updated its stance and now recommends mothers room-in with their newborns as well as breastfeed them, as long as proper infection prevention measures are followed.

If a mother is confirmed to have COVID-19, the CDC advises for her breastfed infant to be considered as having suspected COVID-19 (when the baby’s test results are unavailable) for the duration of the mother’s recommended at-home quarantine period, extending to 14 days after. 

Despite this, the CDC, World Health Organization (WHO), and the Academy of Breastfeeding all recommend that a mother who is showing symptoms or has a confirmed case of COVID-19 to continue breastfeeding or feeding expressed breast milk to her infant while taking all the necessary precautions to avoid spreading the virus to the child. Additionally, the WHO suggests that new mothers “should be counselled that the benefits of breastfeeding substantially outweigh the potential risks for transmission.”

Is it safe:

Sources: Live Science, The Lancet, American Academy of Pediatrics, CDC, WHO, Academy of Breastfeeding

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