While the idea of breastfeeding doesn’t appeal to everyone, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a world-wide game-changer, and right now, it’s the safest possible option for mothers and babies.
Women may be reluctant to breastfeed because they’ve heard about engorged breasts, cracked nipples, milk fever and droopy boobs. With the right attitude and correct information, these problems can be resolved and even avoided.
- Essential for their survival, newborns and babies younger than a year need a strong immune system to protect them from the threat of infections. Breastfed babies benefit from ‘natural’ or ‘passive immunity’ that begins with birth, skin-to-skin bonding and breastfeeding.
- Research has shown that breastfed babies are less likely to get asthma, allergies and colic.
- Babies also benefit from amino acids (proteins) only found in breastmilk. These are programmed to nourish a baby’s fast-growing brain.
Babies develop in the sterile environment of the womb. As soon as they are born, babies are exposed to viral, bacterial, fungal and other infections. This means they need to develop a strong immune system asap. ‘Healthy’ bacteria help them to do this.
Called microbiomes, these natural bacteria are found on mom’s skin and the baby literally swallows them. In the baby’s gut, natural sugars called oligosaccharides (only found in breastmilk) colonise these bacteria, and help to establish immunity. But it doesn’t stop there. Every time a baby breastfeeds, s/he is topped up with live antibodies from mom’s immune system – this means mom literally immunises her baby every time she breastfeeds.
COVID-19 reasons to breastfeed your baby
We’ve seen that once infection rates peak; hospitals are quickly overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases. While routine medical procedures need to continue, hospital stays (when unavoidable) need to be as short as possible. Women may be sent home as early as 4 hours after giving birth and 24 hours after a C-section – providing there are no complications. Breastfeeding helps to minimise after-birth problems.
For mom: When a baby suckles, specific breastfeeding hormones are released. Oxytocin – also known as the ‘love’ hormone – helps mom to bond with her newborn, and stimulates specific muscles to contract. These are little muscles around the milk-producing lobules in the breast, and the womb. In this way, oxytocin helps to establish breastfeeding and minimises bleeding.
For baby: Colostrum or ‘first milk’ contains natural laxatives that help to remove meconium from baby’s bowel. This first poo is made up of all the waste that’s been collecting in the gut over the last 9 months. When the baby’s poo changes colour from dark green to mustard, this is an indication that it contains bilirubin (the yellow colouring that comes from broken-down red blood cells), minimising the chances of ‘baby jaundice’.
The looming world-wide recession
Lockdown and job losses mean tighter budgets. It’s also feared that basic food prices will soar. Families need to be fed. Babies too. Breastfeeding eliminates the cost of expensive formula and the need for feeding and sterilising equipment.
- To date, epidemiologists don’t know enough about COVID-19 antibodies that develop in people who have recovered from this viral flu. We know that antibodies in the blood also make their way to breast milk. Feeding these antibodies to babies should help to protect them from the coronavirus. Experimenting with ‘convalescent plasma’ – COVID-19 antibodies extracted from the blood of recovered coronavirus individuals – have, so far, been successful in limited trials. This gives us hope for breast milk.
- If you have not been exposed to or had COVID-19, and providing that you continue taking the necessary precautions to avoid infection, you can safely breastfeed your baby.
- If you have recovered from COVID-19 and your test is negative, speak to your healthcare provider about breastfeeding. There is a good possibility that you can breastfeed your baby.
- If you are COVID-19 positive, you are advised not to breastfeed. If you would like to breastfeed your baby when you have recovered, you need to stimulate milk production. This can be done by expressing. Currently, there is not enough research to guarantee the safety of ‘pasteurising’ EBM (expressed breast milk).
Top tips to avoid breastfeeding problems
- Wear a well-supporting bra 24/7.
- Just about all breastfeeding problems are avoided when the baby latches correctly. When a baby ‘nipple feeds’ it’s painful, baby doesn’t get enough milk and the nipples get hurt. Make sure that baby ‘bites’ onto the areola surrounding the nipple. When breastfeeding is painless, you know that you’re getting it right!
- Maximum milk production happens during and not between feeds as we think. Frequent (but not prolonged) feeding is the best way to make milk.
- For full, uncomfortable breasts, keep a cabbage in the fridge. Wrap the perfectly shaped leaves over the breast and leave inside your bra until the next feed.
- Spread expressed breast milk over the nipple to prevent infections and cracks.
- Wear breast pads between feeds to keep nipples dry and avoid thrush.
Burgie Ireland, registered nurse and midwife, is married to John. She is a mom to four grown children and grandmom to a brood of six grandchildren (so far). Currently a blogger and freelance writer, Burgie has enjoyed a career of nursing, writing and public speaking over the last forty years – specifically relating to reproductive and women’s health, babies and children. She also enjoys creative writing, handcrafting, calligraphy and music. Read her blog here.