How Can Human Milk Help Newborn Babies Fight Against COVID-19?Dr. Babu S. Madarkar
M.D. (PGIMER) Pediatrics, DNB
DM (Neonatology), DNB
Senior Consultant Neonatologist
Breastmilk is the best nutrition available for a newborn, however, the past two years have left a lot of new mothers questioning themselves. Mothers were concerned about whether they might pass on the SARS-CoV-2 virus to their babies while breastfeeding.
The WHO’s announcement that the benefits of breastfeeding outweighed the risk of transmission helped them heave a sigh of relief. What’s more, further studies showed that human milk can help newborns fight against COVID-19.
How Breastfeeding Boosts Immunity?
Human milk is considered liquid gold because of its nutritive and protective value. A baby’s immune system takes a few months after birth to mature. Breastmilk contains antibodies known as immunoglobulins that are constantly changing to meet an infant’s needs.
If a lactating mother is infected with a bacteria or virus, her body will develop antibodies against the infection and these antibodies will be passed on to the infant through breast milk. These antibodies have been known to protect infants against the flu, gut infections, respiratory tract, middle ear infections and childhood leukaemia as well as reduce the risk of developing diabetes and obesity at a later age.
Can Breastfeeding Transmit Milk-Borne Antibodies Specific to the SARS-CoV-2 Virus?
According to a study by the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) and other university researchers, breastmilk of COVID-positive mothers contains milk-borne antibodies.
The study looked at 37 human milk samples produced by 18 women who had earlier been diagnosed with COVID-19. None of the milk samples tested positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
However, about two-thirds of the samples had antibodies that can help neutralize the effects of the virus. The milk samples had high levels of a common antibody found in human body fluid and blood known as IgA.
Another study looked at the transmission of antibodies formed as a result of vaccination. Researchers studied 504 breastmilk milk samples taken from 84 women. The samples were collected before vaccination and weekly for 6 weeks after the first vaccine shot.
They found that the mean levels of IgA antibodies specific to fighting SARS-CoV-2 in the sample taken 2 weeks after vaccination were much higher than that of the earlier samples. Neither the mothers nor the babies suffered any serious adverse effects during the study.
Since there is no known vaccination available for infants as yet, it is hoped that passing on antibodies can protect babies. So, it is considered safe for women to breastfeed their infants regardless of their exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Breastfeeding Your Baby In COVID Times
Ideally, babies should be exclusively breastfed for at least the first 6 months. At the 6th month, an infant can be introduced to solid foods. However, this does not mean that breastfeeding must be stopped. You may continue to breastfeed your child along with giving them solid foods.
Though the virus is not transmitted through breastmilk, it is very important to follow good hygiene while breastfeeding. Mothers must wear a mask and wash their hands thoroughly before and after picking up the baby. All surfaces must be disinfected regularly. If you have contracted the disease, you may choose to express breastmilk and feed the same to your baby to minimize skin-to-skin contact.
What If You Cannot Breastfeed Your Baby?
There are many cases where mothers either do not produce sufficient breast milk or are too unwell to breastfeed. In such cases, store-bought formula is not the only option available. It is better to consider donor human milk for your baby.
Donor human milk refers to breast milk that has been donated by other lactating women. Many women produce more milk than required by their babies. This breastmilk is collected from women who pass stringent screening measures, tested and pasteurised so as to be safe for consumption. Like your breastmilk, it contains essential nutrients required for healthy mental and physical growth and antibodies to protect the baby from infections.