The almost instant concern that washes over a new mother when she becomes sick is whether she should stay far away from her baby and if that means she'll need to stop breastfeeding to best prevent the spreading of germs.
While it makes sense, especially during these times, to avoid contact with others when you're sick, there are very few instances that would require you to stop breastfeeding. In fact, it's usually encouraged to continue breastfeeding while sick.
Here's how to safely breastfeed your baby if you get COVID or the flu.
What are the benefits of breastfeeding?
Breastfeeding is an important step in protecting your little one from illness since breast milk contains helpful antibodies that pass from moms to babies during feedings that will help them build immunity to certain infections.
In relation to COVID-19, a recent study collected general health information on the donors of breast milk samples and found that S1 and S2 SARS-CoV-2–reactive IgG levels, which are a class of proteins that function as antibodies, were higher in milk from women who had symptoms of a viral respiratory infection during the last year than in milk from women who hadn't had any symptoms of infection.
Outside of COVID-19, antibodies found in breast milk have protected newborn babies and infants against other viral illnesses, including the flu and common cold viruses. It has been proven generally that babies who are exclusively given breastmilk in the months following their birth have fewer ear infections, respiratory illnesses and diarrhea spells.
When should you not breastfeed your child?
Because breastmilk is so integral to a newborn's overall health as their immune systems continue developing, there are a few instances where you shouldn't breastfeed. There is a full list of contraindications to breastfeeding or feeding expressed breast milk to infants on the CDC website, but some of these instances include:
- You are infected with HIV
- You have T-cell lymphotropic virus type I or type II
- You are using an illicit street drug
- You suspect or are confirmed to have the Ebola virus
Breastfeeding while sick: How can you protect your baby from getting sick while still safely breastfeeding?
Although you are most contagious before experiencing any symptoms, there are measures you can take to prevent the spread of germs between you and your baby.
First and foremost, you should always thoroughly wash your hands before handling your baby or any breast pump or bottle parts, and especially before breastfeeding, bottle feeding or breast pumping.
According to the CDC, here are other safety precautions to take:
- Use your own breast pump and avoid sharing, if possible
- If you are sick, wear a mask while expressing breast milk, while breastfeeding and any time you are within six feet of your baby
- Follow proper sanitation protocol for cleaning your breast pump after each use
- Consider having a healthy caregiver feed expressed breastmilk to the baby while you're sick, and ask that they wear a mask while feeding and caring for the baby for extra protection
What do we know about COVID-19 and babies?
The American Academy of Pediatrics' Perinatal COVID-19 Registry shows during late pregnancy and birth, there are few instances of mothers passing the virus to their babies. If the virus did pass from mother to baby around the time of birth, the report shows the babies didn't experience any serious symptoms.
The less encouraging news is that babies are extremely susceptible to getting COVID after they are born, especially preemies, which is why we encourage following the aforementioned hygiene and safety protocols. COVID-19 can cause symptoms in babies that are similar to symptoms of RSV and other fall/winter respiratory viruses, like the flu, including:
- Fatigue and irritability
- Issues with feeding
- Runny nose and cough
- Vomiting and diarrhea
- Trouble breathing
Since many respiratory illnesses show very similar symptoms in babies, it is important that you contact the pediatrician if your baby starts acting off as early diagnoses can prevent any illness from progressing into something worse.
This past year has brought on countless health concerns and questions, especially for new moms. As mentioned above, one of the best ways to protect your baby from viruses is by breastfeeding. Even if you're not able to breastfeed as much as you'd like, feel comfortable knowing that some breast milk in your baby's diet still provides wonderful benefits.
If you have any questions or are unsure if you should breastfeed your child, don't hesitate to contact your OB-GYN, midwife or child's pediatrician for guidance. You've got this!