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Covid-19 moms and breastfeeding: Separating facts from fiction

For many mothers, one of the most damaging falsehoods to emerge has been that Covid-19 positive moms can transmit the virus through breastmilk to their little ones, and should stop breastfeeding.

Globally, World Breastfeeding Week is observed from August 1 to August 7. The local 2020 campaign theme is “Support breastfeeding for a healthier South Africa”.

Spokesperson for The Association for Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA), Andiswa Ngqaka, a registered dietitian says, “There are anecdotes from various countries indicating that this misinformation is causing moms to avoid breastfeeding during the pandemic. While some may see infant formula as a ‘safer alternative’ during this time, this is not the case. Breastmilk is the safest and most nutritious food for babies, and Covid-19 does not change that.”

Worldwide, there is currently no evidence that breastfed babies have been infected by mothers who have tested positive to Covid-19.

Ggqaka explains, “The World Health Organization (WHO) cites one study where there was a detection of non-infectious Covid-19 viral RNA in breastmilk, and this is definitely not the same thing as finding viable and infective virus.

“Therefore, there is unanimous agreement across international health organisations that moms can have complete peace of mind breastfeeding their children through the pandemic, even if they are Covid-19 positive or suspect they might be infected.

“The benefits of skin-to-skin contact with your baby and breastfeeding as normal are overwhelmingly immune-boosting and protective of your baby’s health.”

Lisanne du Plessis, Associate Professor at Stellenbosch University and ADSA spokesperson, gives her top five tips for breastfeeding moms during the pandemic:

– Mothers should breastfeed on demand, whenever the baby wants to breastfeed, day and night.

– Breastfeed exclusively for six months. Breastmilk provides all the food and water that babies need during this time. Breastmilk also protects babies against sickness or infection.

– Do not give any other food or liquids to babies, not even water, during the first six months of life. Even during very hot weather, breastmilk will satisfy babies’ thirst.

– Giving babies under six months anything other than breastmilk will cause them to suckle less, will reduce the amount of breastmilk that a mother produces and may make babies sick.

– Practice hygienic measures to protect moms and babies against Covid-19 and other harmful bacteria and viruses in our environments.

What precautions should a Covid-19 positive mom take?

The WHO provides the following breastfeeding guidelines if you suspect or know you have Covid-19:

Wash hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use alcohol-based hand rub and especially before touching the baby;

Wear a medical mask during any contact with the baby, including while feeding;

Sneeze or cough into a tissue. Then dispose of it immediately and wash hands for at least 20 seconds again;

Routinely clean and disinfect surfaces that you have touched.

It is vital that partners, family and friends support breastfeeding moms who may be Covid-19 infected. They need to understand that there is no evidence that the virus is transmitted through breastmilk, and that by continuing breastfeeding, the mother is doing the best she can do to protect her baby from Covid-19.

Ngqaka says, “If you’re too ill to breastfeed, try to express your milk for your baby and give it with a clean cup or spoon and cup. Expressing breastmilk is important to sustain your milk production so that you can carry on breastfeeding when you recover. If you can’t express your breastmilk, you can consider donor human milk.

“Wet nursing is another option if culturally acceptable to you. Your last option would be to provide a breastmilk substitute. Reunite with your baby as soon as your recover. Get support if you need help re-lactating and bonding with your baby.”

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