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Can you still breast-feed your baby during the Covid-19 pandemic?

Written by Nthusang Lefafa

Breast-feeding protects new-borns from getting sick and continues to safeguard them throughout their infancy and childhood, but has this changed with the coronavirus?

Portia Mokhele (28) from Itsoseng near Lichtenburg is a new mother. She tells Health-e News that she uses personal protective equipment (PPE) every time she handles her baby. “Every time I change my baby’s nappies, I make sure that I am wearing gloves to keep her from getting infected,” she says. I also make sure that I sanitise my hands before I touch my baby or during breastfeeding. 

More to learn  

Health experts agree it is safe for new mothers to breastfeed their infants during the coronavirus outbreak, with the current evidence on hand.  

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) there is no scientific data yet that which indicates that the coronavirus can be transmitted through breastmilk. Research conducted by the health body indicates that breastfeeding is good for new-borns and helps to protect them throughout their infancy and childhood. But, “to date, the virus that causes Covid-19 has not been detected in breastmilk. However, as the disease is new, this evidence is based on limited studies,” it says.  

Last month, a two-day old baby that was born prematurely died due to lung complications after the mother had tested positive for Covid-19. 

In a paper, the WHO says breastfeeding is particularly effective against infectious diseases because it strengthens the immune system by directly transferring antibodies from the mother. It is however advised, as with all confirmed or suspected Covid-19 cases, mothers with any symptoms who are breastfeeding or practising skin-to-skin contact should take necessary precautions. 

The Centres for Disease Control (CDC) explains that the virus spreads between people who are in close contact often through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks. Up to so far, there is no evidence that Covid-19 is passed from mother to baby in breastmilk. Breastfeeding has been shown to be safe when a mom has other illnesses like the flu. 

Extra precaution  

Mokhele says that she also limits the number of people who enter her household to keep her baby safe. “I make sure that the number of people who enter my home is limited and I frequently clean my home with bleach to ensure that surfaces that are frequently touched are not contaminated.” 

The CDC says only a small number of babies have tested positive for the virus shortly after birth and it is still unknown whether or not the babies got the virus before or after birth. 

Meanwhile, the main risk for a baby is catching the virus from close contact with the mother or from a family member. If anyone is sick, it is important to practise the three Ws which are: 

  • Wear a mask during feeding, 
  • Wash hands with soap before and after touching the baby, and; 
  • Wipe and disinfect surfaces regularly. 

Best for baby  

The CDC recommends that new mothers pump or express their breastmilk after carefully cleaning their breasts and hands. It is also very important to clean your breast pump after each use. 

If possible, new mothers are encouraged to wear a cloth face covering while breastfeeding and to practise respiratory hygiene during feeding. 

In a statement, Dr Francesco Branca, director of WHO’s Department of Nutrition and Food Safety recommends that babies be fed nothing but breastmilk for their first six months. 

“The aggressive marketing of breastmilk substitutes, especially through health professionals that parents trust for nutrition and health advice, is a major barrier to improving new-born and child health worldwide,” says Branca. 

In a recent report, the WHO found that only 41% of infants across the world between 0–6 months are breastfed by their mothers. – Health-e News  

For more information on Covid-19 in South Africa, you can call the toll-free line on 0800 029 999, or you can send a message that says “Hi” on WhatsApp to the number 060 012 3456. You can also visit the  SA Coronavirus website.    

About the author

Nthusang Lefafa