Doctors and experts agree that breast milk is the best source of nutrition for most infants. Breastfeeding also builds the baby’s immune system, protecting them against illness. However, the coronavirus has brought new fears for mothers and their new-borns.
Lebo Morake*, a 23-year old mother from Roodepoort in Gauteng, gave birth to her answered prayer, Cebolenkosi, on 15 of March 2021. Even as she gave the baby a name that means “God’s idea,” a pregnancy during the pandemic tested her.
“I had just been fired from my job because the company I was working for closed down due to the coronavirus. I was also scared because I knew that my pregnancy meant I was at high risk of contracting the virus and other diseases because my immune system was weaker. I couldn’t go out to restaurants or even have a maternity photoshoot. I stayed indoors and couldn’t be as excited as I should have been,” she said.
Morake said that while she continues to breastfeed, she is practicing all the safety regulations to protect her and Cebolenkosi from the virus.
“We don’t just let anyone into our house and into our space because most people may not be as careful as I am and we don’t know who they interact with. I’m still very worried because the pandemic isn’t over and contracting the virus still means that I can infect my baby, especially while I am breastfeeding,” Morake said.
Safe to breastfeed
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that mothers with suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19 should initiate and continue to breastfeed.
In a scientific brief the WHO said breastfeeding a new-born for the first six months of life and early and uninterrupted skin-to-skin contact are recommended as two of the most important factors for an infant to thrive.
A recent study by American Society for Microbiology looked at whether mother-to-infant transmission of COVID-19 is possible through breastfeeding. To conduct the study, the researcher analysed 37 milk sample from 18 women diagnosed with COVID-19. The results showed that no SARS-CoV-2 was detected but the antibodies were able to neutralise the virus detected.
This means that the research showed that breastfeeding mothers do not transfer the coronavirus through their milk.
Evidence milk can’t transmit COVID-19
Murray Hewlett, CEO of medical insurance company Affinity Health, adds that there is research evidence that shows that the virus is not found in breast milk, nor is it transmitted through breastmilk from a mother who is confirmed or suspected to have COVID-19 to her baby.
“Because the coronavirus is still fairly new, guidance from experts continues to change. But, so far, it’s safe to breastfeed your baby. However, we know that COVID-19 is spread through direct, indirect, or close contact with infected people through infected secretions such as saliva and respiratory droplets. We also know that you can pass the virus on before you get symptoms but are carrying it. That means that if mom has the virus, she can transmit it to her baby through close contact, and vice versa,” he said.
Good hygiene practices like routinely disinfecting and cleaning surfaces and baby items such as bottles and breast pumps, washing hands frequently and wearing masks will limit the chances of infecting your baby or yourself, Affinity Health recommends. New moms who test positive for COVID-19, are advised to remain isolated with their babies at home for 14 days.
Tips for mothers
During the initial vaccine trials, pregnant women were not included due to limited data on the safety of COVID-19 vaccines for expecting women. Recently, however, professionals in the American Journal of Obstetrics Gynecology Health found that the vaccines should not pose a risk to pregnant women.
“Mothers who become infected while breastfeeding produce immune antibodies in their milk to protect their baby and improve the baby’s own immune system. This means that breastfeed is the best way to protect your baby from the virus,” said the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (Unicef).
As the world adapts to the pandemic, the international NGO provided three tips for mothers breastfeeding during the COVID-19 pandemic.
1. Continue to breastfeed while taking care with hygiene, including wearing a mask during feedings washing hands with soap before and after touching the baby, and wiping and disinfecting surfaces regularly.
2. Continue to breastfeed if you fall sick but take extra hygiene measures.
3. In the event of falling seriously ill with COVID-19, use a “cup and spoon to feed babies with expressed breastmilk when too sick to breastfeed.”
Minister #ZweliMkhize: We all have a responsibility to spread information and create enabling breastfeeding environments and improve South Africa’s breastfeeding rate. This applies to government, workplaces, communities, families, and fathers.@HealthZA pic.twitter.com/kZvubQSyj6
— Dr Zweli Mkhize (@DrZweliMkhize) August 1, 2019
Pregnancy during a pandemic ‘a horror movie’
“Finding out I was pregnant was like living in a horror movie,” said Aphiwe Mngenela, mother of 15-week-old Omilande.
“But the lockdown was at the top of the list because I lost my job because of it. It was a really hard journey from having to be in crowded clinics for monthly check-ups where there was no social distancing and long queues, to finally giving birth with all the doctors, nurses and patients wearing masks. We got sanitised when we entered the building and there were sanitisers in every ward for patients to use,” said Mngenela, who lived in Harare, Khayelitsha.
The 29-year-old mother said that it has been hard to even let family members hold Omilande because she can’t be sure that he will be safe from contracting the virus, and this has affected her breastfeeding.
“It’s still hard traveling to places in Khayelitsha and I’m often forced to do my shopping in other areas in town that are less crowded and enforce rules more strictly. Going to the clinic for his immunisation injections is still very hard. My fear of contracting the virus is one of the reasons that led to my decision to stop breastfeeding him.” said Mngenela.
Raising a baby in uncertain times
Affinity Health’s Hewlett reminded new moms that raising a baby in these uncertain times can be difficult for even the “bravest” new mom.
“Raising a baby in these uncertain times can be difficult for even the bravest new mom, and it’s understandable to be feeling more stressed and apprehensive than joyful. While it’s natural to be confused about how the coronavirus might impact breastfeeding, know that there are many resources available for breastfeeding moms with any breastfeeding concerns.”
“It’s important for all new moms—even those self-isolating—to know that they are not alone. If you feel overwhelmed, reach out to a paediatrician, obstetric healthcare provider, or lactation consultant who will help you. There are also many virtual platforms where breastfeeding moms can go for added support,” said Hewlett.–Health-e News
* Names have been changed to protect the individuals identity