Does COVID-19 Affect Breastfeeding? Plus Key Things New Moms Should Know

July 9, 2020 — 2:30 p.m. EST

Since 2011, August has been declared National Breastfeeding Month, according to the United States Breastfeeding Committee (USBC). In an effort to raise awareness for support resources, breastfeeding education, and erasing stigmas, National Breastfeeding Month is a time to get educated on what your options are if you’re a new mother. Breastfeeding is stressful anyway, but breastfeeding while COVID-19 is increasing makes it even more so. It’s important to understand how COVID-19 may affect your breastfeeding options. 

To find out more, DoctorOz.com spoke with author and Internationally Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) Jennifer Ritchie to bring you the best options. If you’ve had COVID-19, currently have it, or are fearful you might get it, there are some important things you should know. Additionally, if you can’t breastfeed (or don’t want to!), find out the best breast milk alternatives to try for your baby. Here are Ritchie’s key recommendations for new moms.

Breast Milk Basics

Medical professionals encourage breastfeeding for at least six months, in part because it helps bolster an infant’s immune system. “Each drop of breast milk contains one million white blood cells,” says Ritchie. “These are the cells that kill bacteria, fight infection, fight disease, and destroy old or damaged cells in the body.” Breast milk contains antibodies such as immunoglobulin A (IgA), which bind to microorganisms and keep them away from the body’s tissues. Additionally, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is an omega-3 fatty acid found in breast milk that has health benefits for the baby. According to the American Pregnancy Association, DHA is essential to ensure optimal fetal brain, eye, immune and nervous system development. 

Ritchie says breastfeeding shouldn’t be difficult or painful. She recommends reaching out to a lactation expert if you’re having trouble, rather than believing you should be able to do it on your own at all costs. “Among infants born in 2015 in the United States, 4 out of 5 (83.2%) started to breastfeed, over half (57.6%) were breastfeeding at 6 months. This shows that breastfeeding is harder than you think,” says Ritchie. 

Breastfeeding & COVID-19

One of the biggest questions Ritchie is getting right now is from mothers wondering if COVID-19 can spread to a child through breastfeeding. “In limited studies on women with COVID-19, the virus has not been detected in breast milk; however we do not know yet whether mothers with COVID-19 can transmit the virus via breast milk,” says Ritchie. If you’re concerned, reach out to your doctor. The CDC notes that “there are only rare exceptions when breastfeeding or feeding expressed breast milk is not recommended,” like if the mother or child is suffering from a certain illness (not COVID-19). 

“Given low rates of transmission of respiratory viruses through breast milk, both the CDC and World Health Organization states that mothers with COVID-19 can breastfeed,” says Ritchie. This statement also applies to mothers who previously had COVID-19 and/or tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies. The CDC recommends that “a mother with confirmed COVID-19 should be counseled to take precautions to avoid spreading the virus to her infant, including hand washing and wearing a cloth face covering.” Again, if you are concerned, talk to your doctor. 

What Formula to Look for If You Can’t or Choose Not to Breastfeed

Breastfeeding is a personal choice, and new mothers should always do what works best for them — even if that means not breastfeeding. Ritchie agrees that choosing an infant formula is an overwhelming task, and recommends choosing one that is closest nutritionally to human breast milk. “You may need to make modifications to the type of formula based on the situation,” says Ritchie. “For example, if your baby was born prematurely, has a medical condition, or colic, you do not have to compromise nutrition if you need to use a specialized formula. My recommendation, chose a formula that does not use sucrose (or table sugar) as a source of carbohydrate and contains 0.32% DHA as a standard.” 

If your infant has a severe cow’s milk allergy or food protein allergy that’s not effectively managed by an extensively hydrolyzed formula, Ritchie recommends an amino acid-based infant formula. “For infants who are allergic to the intact proteins in cow’s milk and soy formulas, choose a formula with an extensively hydrolyzed casein protein to help avoid an immune response by reducing the allergen exposure and is proven effective for managing colic,” she says.

What Breastfeeding Experts Want Everyone to Know

Ritchie says that the first two weeks of breastfeeding can be the most difficult. “Your first goal should be to make it through those first weeks and it will get a lot easier,” she says. “If you can’t or don’t want to breastfeed, do not let anyone make you feel terrible or bad about your decision. I have always supported every new parent and baby without judgment, but unfortunately some new mothers have not had great experiences finding solutions to breastfeeding problems.” 

Ritchie says the ultimate goal of all new mothers should be to make and attend every scheduled pediatrician appointment, love their child, and choose to feed their baby however they see fit. “That to me is an amazing mother,” she says.

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