Breastmilk is the best nutrition available for a newborn, however, the past two years have left a lot of new mothers questioning themselves. Mothers were concerned about whether they might pass on the SARS-CoV-2 virus to their babies while breastfeeding.
The WHO’s announcement that the benefits of breastmilk outweighed the risk of transmission, helped them heave a sigh of relief. Dr. Babu S Madarkar, Senior Consultant Neonatologist, Rainbow Children’s Hospital, Bangalore highlighted the fact that human milk can help babies fight against COVID-19 according to studies. If a lactating mother is infected with a bacteria or virus, her body will develop antibodies against the infection and these antibodies will be passed on to the infant through breast milk. These antibodies have been known to protect infants against the flu, gut infections, respiratory tract and middle ear infections and childhood leukaemia as well as reduce the risk of developing diabetes and obesity at a later age.
Human Milk Boosts Immunity
Human milk is considered liquid gold because of its nutritive and protective value. A baby’s immune system takes a few months after birth to mature. Breastmilk contains antibodies known as immunoglobins that are constantly changing to meet an infant’s needs and developing immunity.
Can Human Milk Transmit Milk-Borne Antibodies Specific To The SARS-CoV-2 Virus
According to a study by the University of Rochester Medical Centre (URMC) and other university researchers, breast milk of COVID-positive mothers contains milk-borne antibodies.
The study looked at 37 human milk samples produced by 18 women who had earlier been diagnosed with COVID-19. None of the milk samples tested positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
However, about two-thirds of the samples had antibodies that can help neutralize the effects of the virus. The milk samples had high levels of a common antibody found in human body fluid and blood known as IgA.
Another study looked at the transmission of antibodies formed as a result of vaccination. Researchers studied 504 breastmilk milk samples taken from 84 women. The samples were collected before vaccination and weekly for 6 weeks after the first vaccine shot.
They found that the mean levels of IgA antibodies specific to fighting SARS-CoV-2 in the sample taken 2 weeks after vaccination were much higher than that of the earlier samples. Neither the mothers nor the babies suffered any serious adverse effects during the study.
Since there is no known vaccination available for infants as yet, it is hoped that passing on antibodies through human milk can protect babies against COVID19. So, it is considered safe for women to breastfeed their infants regardless of their exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Necessary Precautions during breastfeeding in COVID Times
Further Dr. Babu S Madarkar recommended that the babies should be exclusively breastfed for at least the first 6 months. At the 6th month, an infant can be introduced to solid foods. However, this does not mean that breastfeeding must be stopped. You may continue to breastfeed your child along with giving them solid foods.
Though the virus is not transmitted through breastmilk, it is very important to follow good hygiene while breastfeeding. Mothers must wear a mask and wash their hands thoroughly before and after picking up the baby. All surfaces must be disinfected regularly. If you have contracted the disease, you may choose to express breastmilk and feed the same to your baby through a spoon or palada to minimize skin-to-skin contact.
There are many cases where mothers either do not produce sufficient breast milk or are too unwell to breastfeed. In such cases, store-bought formula is not the only option available. It is better to consider donor human milk for your baby.
Donor human milk refers to breast milk that has been donated by healthy lactating mothers who have been screened and tested. Many women produce more milk than required by their babies. This breastmilk is collected from women who pass stringent screening measures, tested and pasteurized so as to be safe for consumption. Like your breastmilk, donor human milk contains essential nutrients required for healthy mental and physical growth and antibodies to protect the baby from infections.
Human milk donation in COVID times is need of the hour
Dr. Babu S Madarkar informed that it is a well-established fact that human milk has immunological factors that are highly protective against various infections including COVID 19. Giving pasteurised donor human milk to sick and premature infants who lack access to their own mother’s milk, helps them fight these infections by providing passive immunity. Irrespective of the fact that the mother has tested positive for COVID19 or not, lactating mothers can donate their excess breastmilk for needy infants, giving them a chance to intact survival and a healthier future.