If you are breastfeeding or planning to breastfeed, the spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has probably stirred up all kinds of emotions. Maybe you are asking yourself questions such as:
- Should I stop breastfeeding if I'm exposed to coronavirus?
- If I get symptoms of COVID-19, will breastfeeding put my baby at risk?
- Where can I get up-to-date information about breastfeeding safety during the pandemic?
Experts are still learning about the virus that causes COVID-19, and new information is being shared every day. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is a trusted source for the most up-to-date guidance about COVID-19. Dawn Schindler, RN, BSN, IBCLC, a lactation consultant at the Children's Health℠ Level IV Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), explains the CDC recommendations for breastfeeding and coronavirus and ways you can help protect yourself and your baby.
Can COVID-19 spread through breast milk?
In limited research studies, COVID-19 has not been detected in breast milk, but no one is sure whether mothers with COVID-19 can spread the virus through breast milk. Scientists around the world are studying how the coronavirus is transmitted. They believe the virus spreads mainly from person to person, primarily through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks.
Should I continue to breastfeed during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Breast milk contains antibodies that can help protect babies from many illnesses and is the best source of nutrition for most infants. But the decision to begin or continue breastfeeding is personal for each mom and family.
"If mom is exposed to the coronavirus or develops COVID-19 symptoms, she should talk with her health care provider about making a plan for how to feed her baby safely," Schindler advises.
How can I protect my baby from COVID-19 while breastfeeding?
Everyone, including moms, should take steps to help protect themselves from COVID-19 such as practicing proper hand hygiene, practicing social distancing and cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces daily.
If you are concerned you have been exposed to COVID-19 or are showing COVID-19 symptoms and choose to directly breastfeed, take the following precautions to help keep your baby safe:
- Wash your hands before touching your baby
- Wear a facemask, if possible, while feeding at the breast
"Taking these precautions can protect baby from respiratory droplets that a mother may produce while breastfeeding," explains Schindler.
Should I pump instead of breastfeeding the baby directly?
Expressing (pumping) breast milk is a good alternative to direct breastfeeding when mom isn't feeling well. Schindler says that moms who are sick can choose to express breast milk and have someone who is healthy feed her infant. Moms who are expressing breast milk should:
- Use a dedicated breast pump rather than a shared one (if available, opt for an electric breast pump)
- Wash hands before touching any pump or bottle parts and before expressing breast milk
- Follow the CDC's recommendations for proper pump cleaning
If you are pumping, make sure you and your family are also following recommendations to safely store breast milk to keep your baby healthy. You may find that pumping or being sick can affect your milk supply. See tips for increasing your breast milk supply when pumping.
How else can moms take care of themselves during the COVID-19 outbreak?
This can be a challenging time for all people, especially for pregnant women and women who just had a baby. "This is probably not the experience they had anticipated," Schindler says. "Maybe they didn't get to have a baby shower, or their birth experience wasn't what they hoped it would be or grandparents haven't been able to see the baby in person yet."
Stress and anxiety can affect many areas of a mother's life, including her breast milk supply. Self-care for moms is an important part of caring for baby. Schindler recommends that women:
- Eat a nutritious diet
- Get some fresh air with their baby, whether by walking or just sitting outside (while maintaining social distance from others)
- Get the rest they need, including napping when the baby naps
- Maintain daily routines as much as possible
- Stay hydrated
- Connect with friends and family virtually for support
"Most importantly, I encourage moms to enjoy this unexpected time at home as they bond with their baby," Schindler says.
What if a mom needs support from a health care provider?
Though this time can feel isolating, mothers should never feel alone as they learn to care for their baby. Many medical practices are offering virtual appointments and office hours for necessary care.
"Women should reach out to their pediatrician, OB-GYN, nurse midwife or private lactation consultants if they have questions about infant care, breastfeeding or need resources to obtain a breast pump for home," Schindler says. "Speaking with the lactation consultants at your birth hospital is a good place to start."
Through our highly trained lactation consultants and Pediatric Milk Lab, Children's Health is dedicated to supporting breastfeeding moms in caring for their children.