What Nursing Moms Should Know About COVID-19
It’s no secret that we’re living in a confusing and stressful time. If you’re currently breastfeeding (or pregnant and planning on doing so when baby is born), it’s natural to have questions about what the COVID-19 pandemic means for you as a nursing mom.
Keep in mind: Doctors and public health officials are learning more about COVID-19 all the time, and research on the virus’ impact on nursing moms and their babies is ongoing. But, as of now, here’s everything experts know about breastfeeding and COVID-19.
Can you get the COVID-19 vaccine if you’re breastfeeding?
Yes. Leading experts including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine (SMFM) strongly recommend that all who are eligible, including pregnant and lactating women, receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
Experts point out that many breastfeeding women have now received the COVID-19 vaccine, and studies show that the vaccines are safe and effective for nursing moms and their children.
Once you get the vaccine, there is no reason to pause or stop breastfeeding (and in fact, studies suggest that breastfeeding after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine may even pass on protective benefits to children who are still too young to receive the vaccine themselves).
Can I pass on COVID-19 antibodies to my baby by breastfeeding?
Although more studies are needed, the latest research suggests that lactating women who receive a COVID-19 vaccine may pass on protective antibodies through their breast milk.
One recent study published in the journal Pediatrics studied 98 women in Spain who had never had COVID-19 and were breastfeeding at the time they received an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine. They were compared to 24 breastfeeding women who had never been vaccinated. The researchers found that women who were vaccinated while breastfeeding had antibodies to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in their breast milk.
Another study, published earlier this year in JAMA, analyzed breast milk from 84 women in Israel who provided 504 milk samples. Researchers tested their milk two weeks after the women received their first mRNA vaccine and found that 61 percent of samples tested positive for IgA COVID-19 antibodies (these antibodies are usually found in the lining of the respiratory tract and digestive system). That number increased to 86.1 percent at week four (a week after the second vaccine).
That antibodies can pass through breast milk is not new to experts, since “the transfer of antibodies from mother to baby via the breast milk is one way that breastfeeding helps prevent other types of respiratory infections in breastfed babies,” notes Joan Younger Meek, M.D., professor of clinical sciences at Florida State University College of Medicine in Florida.
And of course, getting vaccinated against COVID-19 significantly lowers the risk you’ll contract the virus yourself and pass it to your baby. “[The vaccine] helps keep moms healthy, so they can continue to care for their infant,” says Mary Lussier, B.S.N., I.B.C.L.C., a lactation consultant at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Connecticut.
If I test positive for COVID-19, can I still breastfeed my baby?
The CDC stresses that, while antibodies to COVID-19 can be passed on through breast milk, evidence suggests that it’s not likely to spread the virus to babies. However, if you test positive for COVID-19, it is possible to spread it to your baby through your respiratory droplets, which is why the CDC recommends taking certain precautions, like wearing a mask.
However, don’t suddenly stop nursing your baby out of COVID-19 fears without consulting your doctor.
“Breast milk is still key and very important at this time for babies because it helps them fight infection,” says Daniel S. Ganjian, M.D., a pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.
If you test positive for COVID-19, have symptoms (such as a dry cough, shortness of breath, fever, shaking, chills, headache, muscle pain or a new loss of taste or smell) or have been exposed to the virus, CDC guidelines recommend taking the following precautions to avoid spreading the virus to your baby:
- Washing your hands with soap and water before touching your baby.
- Using hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol if soap and water are not available.
- Wearing a cloth face covering while nursing (if available, an N95 mask is even better).
- Practicing good hand hygiene when expressing breast milk.
- Consider letting expressed breast milk be bottle-fed to the baby by a healthy caregiver.
- If you require lactation services that cannot be done virtually, the lactation provider should follow recommended infection prevention and control measures, and wear personal protective equipment (PPE).
How should I clean my breast pump?
As for your pump and parts, “regularly cleaning them, and doing it well is important,” says Aline Holmes, D.N.P., N.P., an associate professor at the Rutgers School of Nursing who specializes in emergency preparedness. The CDC specifically recommends sanitizing your pump parts with either steam or allowing them to boil in hot water for five minutes, before removing the parts with tongs.
These recommendations could change as experts learn more about the coronavirus. If you test positive for COVID-19 or suspect you have it, call your pediatrician for their advice and check the CDC’s website for the latest information.