The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has posed numerous challenges to people across the globe. As people are still trying to come to terms with co-existing with the virus, expecting mothers and parents have various questions around breastfeeding and the safety precautions that new mothers need to keep in mind while feeding their newborn babies.
Breast milk is the best source of nutrition for most infants, and it provides protection against many illnesses. It has a nearly perfect mix of vitamins, protein, and fat -- everything your baby needs to grow. The benefits of breastfeeding, skin to skin contact and rooming in of a new-born with the mother in most cases, far outweighs the small risk of contracting neonatal Corona infection from the mother, writes Dr Sudheshna Ray, Consultant Obstetric and Gynaecologist, Jaslok Hospital & Research Centre, Mumbai.
"This is especially true for developing countries like India. Neonatal death in India is caused mainly from malnutrition and bacterial or other fatal viral infections. Top feeds increase the risk of infection as it needs a substantial care on sterilization and handling support. Moreover, Top feeding is expensive," Dr Ray adds.
Most importantly it can never match the immune agents that are present in BM for short and long term immunity to new-borns and toddlers. It is highly likely that if a Covid positive mother has already developed antibodies towards the virus in her blood, those would be carried to the baby through the breastmilk which itself can be protective to the breastfed infants.
She informs: "We do not know whether mothers with COVID-19 can transmit the virus via breast milk, but the limited data available suggest this is not likely to be a source of transmission. The likelihood of infection is more through handling of the baby and direct droplet spread while feeding. This needs to be minimised by taking adequate precautions like strict hand hygiene, maternal protective masks which are well fitted and properly handled, minimum handling of the baby and distancing when not feeding. If possible, expressed breast milk should be fed to the infant by a healthy caregiver, who is not at high-risk for severe illness from COVID-19."
The precautions that a COVID positive mother should take during breastfeeding
Washing hands before breastfeeding or handling the baby for at least 20 seconds.
Coughing or sneezing in tissue and disposing it off immediately and also sanitizing/cleaning hands after it.
Sanitiser should have 60 percent alcohol
Cleaning and disinfecting surfaces which comes in touch with mother
Wearing masks while breastfeeding or handling the baby whenever possible (in case it is not available, WHO still recommends to breastfeed the baby as benefits outweigh the risks)
There is no need to wash breast before every breastfeed. In case mother has just coughed over her exposed breast/chest then she should gently wash the breast/chest with soap and water for at least 20 seconds prior to feeding
Another way of feeding the baby could be pumping out the breast milk from the mother and send it across to the baby and feed the baby by a spoonor tube feed
As per Dr Ray, breastfeeding is beneficial for mothers as well. It forms a special bond between mother and the new-born baby. Breastfeeding also decreases health risks like breast cancer and ovarian cancer. It even burns extra calories and helps many mothers return to their pre-pregnancy weight.
"New mothers need to be given proper guidelines by their respective doctors. New mothers should also keep in mind all the social distancing norms and avoid celebrating the child's birth with a large gathering of people as the risk of the baby contracting the virus from others is more likely than contracting it through breastfeeding.
The WHO says that breastfeeding may protect the new-born baby's health and thus should be continued. However, it is important for new mothers to maintain respiratory hygiene, hand hygiene and cleaning of surfaces. Breastfeeding must be encouraged for all mothers including those who are Covid positive," concludes the expert.