Breastfeeding in sickness and in health

August 3, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has spun the world into unusual times, touching on just about every part of our lives in ways unimaginable. Our lives are now punctuated with uncertainty because the most ordinary day to day actions seem to carry the risk of getting the virus. This piece goes out to all mothers tasked with the care of their young children during these pandemic times. I delve into the course of breastfeeding in illness with COVID-19 in mind. 

Pandemic aside, breastfeeding is a magical and most natural mode of nourishing a baby. It is repetitive and demanding, but a relentlessly crying infant is immediately pacified when a mother puts her child to the breast. A desperate, directed latch-on enters into a satisfying suckle, a calming connection, and indeed a potent life-giving engagement.  

Breast milk is a complete composition. It has in it all the nutrients an infant needs in the first six months of life. Breastfeeding keeps a child from illnesses like diarrhea and pneumonia. It helps children recover faster when they are sick and provides benefits later in life by reducing their risk of being overweight and obese in adolescence. As a child is held close to her mother while breastfeeding, an invisible, mutually beneficial emotional connection is forming. Breastfeeding helps a mother space another pregnancy and reduces her risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and type-2 diabetes. 

Situations such as pre-term birth or illness on the part of the mother or child can disrupt breastfeeding in its natural form. Even then, breastmilk remains the best food for the child. It becomes a question of how to make the breastmilk available to a sick child or how a sick mother can be supported to make her breastmilk available to her child. Expressing milk (squeezing milk out of the breast) and storing it safely makes it possible for a child who cannot breastfeed to benefit from the mother’s milk. It also ensures that a mother’s breastmilk supply is not reduced or cut off when she cannot feed her child from the breast.

Fast forward to the COVID-19 pandemic. What then for a mother who suspects herself or her child as infected with the coronavirus? Even in these times, breastmilk and close contact is still best for the child. This recommendation is given by the World Health Organization (WHO) based on available evidence. COVID-19 has not been detected in the breastmilk of any mother confirmed or suspected of this illness. Whether isolating at home or in hospital, a mother and her child should stay together and continue to breastfeed. Mothers and their infants can isolate together. Mothers with pre-term infants can have skin-to-skin contact, including kangaroo mother care while in hospital and at home. If a mother is too sick to breastfeed, she can be assisted in expressing and storing the milk for the child.

Observing hygiene is paramount at all times. Mothers should wash their hands with soap and water before handling their children. They should cough and sneeze into disposable tissues and wear a mask at all times until their symptoms are cleared. If a mother is coughing, she should clean her chest and breast before breastfeeding. A healthy diet for the mother containing all food groups, including fruits and vegetables, is necessary to keep one strong to fight off disease.