Breast-Feeding When You Have COVID-19: Is It Safe?

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If you’re pregnant and have tested positive for COVID-19, you might be wondering if you can still breast-feed your baby. Happily, the answer is yes! Your milk is not only safe, but beneficial for your baby, even if you have COVID-19.

What’s the Scientific Research?

We do not know for sure if mothers with COVID-19 pass the virus into their milk. The very few studies on this topic did not find the virus in mother’s milk. Studies of mothers who had a similar coronavirus called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) did not find SARS virus in the mother’s milk.

Preliminary research shows that new mothers who are COVID-positive have a stronger immune response and more secretory immunoglobulin A (IgA). IgA  is the main antibody that breast-feeding mothers share with their baby in breast milk. IgA coats the baby’s mouth, respiratory tract, ear tubes and intestines and blocks the bacteria and viruses from attaching.

How Breast Milk Responds to Viruses

Breast milk is magical and produces antibodies to protect the baby.

If the mother is exposed to any viruses or bacteria, her body will automatically respond with the right kind of immune protection in the form of antibodies to protect the baby.

Any bacteria or viruses the baby is exposed to will be in the baby’s saliva, which is backwashed in the breast-feeding mother’s nipples and breast milk, prompting the mother’s body to turn out the specific antibodies needed. So each mother makes designer breast milk for her baby.

It’s unlikely that the virus for COVID-19 will pass into your milk. But if it does, the mother’s antibodies also pass into her milk. These antibodies actually work better than most medicines to protect your baby from viruses.

Is It ‘Safer’ Not To Breast-Feed?

It’s easy to think you’re being on the safe side to choose formula or donor milk for your baby, but the opposite is true. Only your milk – not formula or donor milk – has the one-of-a-kind antibodies to help prevent your baby from becoming sick with COVID-19.

The CDC, World Health Organization (WHO), American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Academy of Breast-feeding Medicine all recommend that feeding babies breast milk should continue even when the mother has COVID-19.

For babies in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), mother’s milk is even more important because it helps the baby’s immature immune system fight all types of infections.

If You Do Choose To Breast-Feed

The CDC recommends that if you have COVID-19 and choose to breast-feed, you wear a cloth face covering while breast-feeding and wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before each feeding.

If you have COVID-19 and choose to express breast milk:

  • Use your own breast pump – and don’t share it or use others’.
  • Wear a cloth face covering during expression and wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before touching any pump or bottle parts and before expressing breast milk.
  • Follow recommendations for proper pump cleaning after each use, cleaning all parts that come into contact with breast milk.
  • If possible, expressed breast milk should be fed to your baby by a healthy caregiver who does not have COVID-19, is not at high-risk for severe illness from COVID-19, and is living in the same home.

If Your Baby Needs Donor Milk

The milk banks that provide donor milk take many steps to keep the milk safe.

  • Donor mothers must have a blood test to show they do not have illnesses.
  • Mothers send a sample of their milk to the milk bank. If the milk has harmful germs, the mother cannot be a milk door.
  • All accepted donor milk is heat-treated – just like milk you buy in the store for your family. This heat-treatment kills germs in the milk, including viruses like COVID-19.

Keeping Mother and Baby Together

There is no evidence that keeping a baby away from a COVID-19-positive mother is beneficial. Rooming-in means more time with the mother, who is more likely to have breast-feeding success and bond with her baby.

Breast-feeding stimulates the release of oxytocin into the mother’s body, which is the love hormone for bonding with baby and which reduces stress hormones.

And it is still very safe to have a baby in the hospital! All pregnant women preparing to have their baby are tested so we can keep everyone safe.

Maura Moes is a certified lactation consultant with University Hospitals Lactation Services.

Related Links

University Hospitals Lactation Services provide assistance to mothers and babies in Northeast Ohio who need a little extra help with breast-feeding. At every UH breast-feeding center, certified lactation consultants are available to work with you and your infant to ensure a successful and satisfying experience. Learn more about UH Lactation Services.

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