- Breastfeeding is considered safe in most circumstances, even if you’ve been exposed to or infected with COVID-19.
- COVID-19 is not thought to be transmitted through breast milk.
- Precautions like mask-wearing and hand-washing need to be followed if you are sick.
Being the parent of a baby is always a bit of an overwhelming experience, but doing so during a pandemic adds an extra layer of stress. Our number one job as parents is to keep our children safe and well, and with COVID-19 circulating, there is a lot of uncertainty about how best to do that.
If you are breastfeeding your baby, you probably have some specific questions about how to keep your little one healthy right now. Because breastfeeding by its very nature requires close contact, you might be unsure of the safest ways to continue breastfeeding if you’ve been exposed to COVID-19 or if you’ve recently tested positive.
Thankfully, all experts are in agreement that in most circumstances, breastfeeding should continue, even if the breastfeeding parent has or has been exposed to COVID-19. In fact, ensuring that your baby continues to receive breast milk—which contains antibodies and other virus-fighting agents—will help protect your baby.
That said, there are certain precautions you need to take, and there are some special instances where it might be advisable to pump rather than directly breastfeed. Read on for expert advice on how to manage breastfeeding with COVID-19.
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What Experts Say
Many breastfeeding parents often aren't sure whether it’s safe to continue breastfeeding if they have COVID-19, or have been exposed to it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and most medical experts are in agreement that continuing to breastfeed is usually safe, and can provide some added protection for your baby.
“In general, yes it is safe to breastfeed if you have COVID-19,” assures Shelly Patularu, an IBCLC and RN. “Breastfeeding is encouraged because the mother's body produces antibodies to COVID-19. The antibodies pass through the milk and provide protection for the nursing baby.”
Patularu, who is mom to a 19 month old and 3-year-old twins, shared that her family recently had COVID-19, and she continued nursing her youngest child. “She is the only one nursing and she had the least amount of symptoms of anyone in our family,” she shared. “I attribute it to the antibodies she was receiving through my breastmilk.”
Of course, Patularu’s story is only anecdotal, but research supports the fact that parents who are COVID-19 positive produce antibodies that pass through breast milk and help babies fight the virus.
“If a mom is infected with COVID-19 (or any respiratory virus), her milk may provide antibodies to her child against that particular infection,” explains Jenelle Ferry, M.D., neonatologist and director of feeding, nutrition, and infant development at Pediatrix Medical Group of Florida – Tampa Neonatology.
Continuing to breastfeed your baby means that they are less likely to contract the virus after exposure, says Dr. Ferry. If they contract it, they are more likely to have a mild or asymptotic case, she adds.
Dr. Ferry also explains that if you’ve been vaccinated, you will pass on antibodies to your baby through breastmilk. The CDC recommends vaccination for pregnant and breastfeeding parents, and notes that breastfeeding parents who’ve been vaccinated have COVID-19 antibodies in their breastmilk, which have the potential to protect their babies.
Can COVID-19 Be Passed Through Breastmilk?
One common concern that breastfeeding parents have is whether or not they can pass COVID-19 to their babies through their breastmilk. Here’s another piece of good news: there isn’t evidence so far that COVID-19 is transmitted through breast milk. For this reason, the CDC says that it’s unlikely that COVID-19 could spread to babies through breastmilk.
“The best data we have now is reassuring, in that COVID-19 does not seem to readily pass through breastmilk,” says Dr. Ferry. “This is similar to previous coronavirus outbreaks and for influenza, where the virus has not been found to be vertically transmitted (i.e., through the breastmilk).”
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How to Safely Breastfeed When You Are Sick
Even though there is reassuring information about the protection breastmilk offers and the fact that it’s unlikely that your baby will get infected from your breastmilk, your baby can still become infected with COVID-19 the same way that anyone does: through close contact with a COVID-19-infected person.
If you are COVID-19 positive or have been exposed to COVID-19, the CDC recommends that you take precautions while breastfeeding your baby, including wearing a mask.
“The most crucial precaution is to continue masking around babies,” says Christina Johns, MD, pediatrician and Senior Medical Advisor at PMPediatrics. “If a parent is coughing excessively, aerosols can be transferred through the air, and if the parent is not wearing a mask properly, this will make it a high-risk situation for the baby.”
In addition to mask-wearing, there are a few other safety measures you should take if you are COVID-19 positive or have been exposed to COVID-19, according to the CDC. This includes washing your hands with soap and water for a minimum of 20 seconds prior to breastfeeding. Hand sanitizer with 60% alcohol is an acceptable alternative.
The CDC also recommends keeping distance from your baby whenever possible. “If you have someone else available to help care for your infant in between feedings, this can help minimize opportunities for transmission as well as allow you to rest,” Dr. Ferry advises.
When Is Direct Breastfeeding Not Advised?
Experts recommend that you continue to breastfeed your baby—with precautions—in most circumstances. However, there may be certain circumstances where direct breastfeeding is not the best option, and pumping your breast milk may be preferred.
Dr. Ferry says she wouldn’t recommend continuing to breastfeed if you are severely ill from COVID-19, and you are not able to properly care for your baby. She recommends having a trusted family member care for your baby.
“In this case, you should continue to pump and provide breast milk,” says Dr. Ferry. “Your infant will continue to receive the benefits of antibodies and other anti-infective properties even through your pumped milk.”
Patularu says there may be circumstances where the risks are too high for your infant, and pumping might be preferred to breastfeeding.
“The only circumstance I could foresee needing to isolate from your baby and pumping instead of feeding directly at the breast is if your baby is immunocompromised or if the baby has a high risk medical condition,” she said.
Each parent and baby are different. If you are not sure whether direct breastfeeding is safe, you should contact your healthcare provider or your baby’s pediatrician.
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How to Safely Pump If You Have COVID-19
If you do choose to pump rather than breastfeed while you are COVID-19 positive, the CDC has a few basic guidelines.
First, you should only use your own breast pump, not a shared pump. Second, you should wash your hands before pumping and wear a mask while you pump. You should wash your hands after pumping as well. Finally, you should ensure that the person who is feeding your baby the bottle of pumped milk is not infected with COVID-19.
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What This Means for You
It’s completely understandable that you would have concerns about breastfeeding your baby during the pandemic. Your priority as a parent is to keep your little one healthy, after all. Luckily, experts agree that it’s not only safe to continue breastfeeding when you've been exposed to COVID-19, breastfeeding is one of the best ways to protect your baby from illness.
If you do become infected with COVID, make sure you are taking common-sense precautions, such as mask-wearing, hand-washing, and social distancing. If you do get sick, check in with your baby’s pediatrician. They know your baby’s medical history best and will let you know the safest way to continue providing breast milk to your baby, whether by direct breastfeeding or pumping.
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