If You Have COVID, Breastfeeding May Actually Be Your Baby's Best Protection

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Scary Mommy and South_agency/Getty

There’s lots of confusion over parents with COVID-19 and breastfeeding. Specifically, if you are infected with COVID-19, is it safe to continue breastfeeding your child?

Obviously, you don’t want to transmit the virus to your child. However, you may want to breastfeed — but may worry that your breast milk contains the COVID-19 virus itself. Moreover, how are you even supposed to get close enough to your baby to nurse them if you are supposed to social distance?

The good news is that the evidence so far points to the fact that breast milk itself can’t transmit COVID-19 to your baby (yay!). Furthermore, breast milk actually has a protective element for your child, as researchers have found COVID-19 antibodies in breast milk.

Let’s talk about what this all means and the best way to safely continue nursing your baby even when you’ve been infected with COVID-19.

COVID-19 Antibodies Come From Sick Parents

A new study published in mBio on February 9th showed that nursing parents don’t pass COVID-19 to their babies: instead, they pass COVID-19 antibodies, and those antibodies could help “neutralize” the virus, according to Futurity. Out of 37 milk samples from COVID-19 infected mothers, absolutely zero contained the virus itself. Zero. Zip. None. However, two-thirds of those samples “did contain two antibodies specific to the virus.”

So if you have COVID-19, breastfeeding your baby could actually be protective rather than dangerous. “These early results suggest that breast milk from mothers who have had a COVID-19 infection contains specific and active antibodies against the virus,” says co-investigator Bridget Young, assistant professor in the pediatrics department at the University of Rochester Medical Center, “and that they do not transfer the virus through milk. This is great news!”

A larger study is coming, and we need to see, as other researchers point out, if a vaccine can make breast milk produce COVID-19 antibodies as well.

This Shouldn’t Be A Shock

The World Health Organization (WHO), which recommends exclusive breastfeeding until six months and continued nursing for two years and beyond, published a study back in May which argued that breast was best when it came to COVID-19 infected dyads (for many reasons related to infant mortality and kangaroo care, skin-to-skin contact, etc.). However, they indicated that “a preprint article reported secretory immunoglobulin A (sIgA) immune response against the COVID-19 virus found in 12 of 15 breastmilk samples from mothers with COVID-19.”

In other words, parents were producing COVID-19 antibodies in their breast milk, and the WHO suspected it as far back as May. They continue that, “Although the strength and durability of sIgA reactive to COVID-19 have not yet been determined, multiple bioactive components have been identified in breastmilk that … protect against infections.”

While these are minor footnotes in a larger study about the infectiousness of human breast milk (and the WHO did, and does, recommend initiation and continuation of breastfeeding), they’re tantalizing little “more research is necessary, and we probably shouldn’t be shocked, since human milk produces antibodies to everything” tidbits.

So What Do COVID-19 Antibodies In Breastmilk Mean for Isolation?

If you have COVID-19, it looks like your baby’s best protection may be breastfeeding. Breastfeeding seems to produce COVID-19 specific antibodies, and a study released in iScience in November suggests that the type of antibodies that breastfeeding produces continue to be produced after the mother recovers.

But if you have COVID-19, regardless of your body producing COVID-19 antibodies, you need to take precautions. The CDC recommends you wash your hands before you touch your baby, wear a face mask while nursing, and “wash your hands before touching pump or bottle parts and clean all parts after each use.”

If possible, the CDC recommends that only one person care for the person in the family who is sick — i.e., that the COVID-19 infected person have a designated caregiver who maintains as much distance as possible from the rest of their household. This person should help care for mother and child. In a best-case scenario, mother and perhaps child share a bedroom and bathroom that’s not used by other people.

If someone infected with COVID-19 doesn’t feel well enough to personally nurse their baby, they can be fed expressed breastmilk; however, they have to be very careful to personally clean the pump after each and every use. Care should be taken by the other caregiver while touching the bottle, etc., since COVID-19 can live on surfaces. This person should also wear a mask while breastfeeding the child.

Even with COVID-19 antibodies, proper precautions have to be taken.

So When Can We Come Out?

A COVID-19 infected parent should observe CDC’s recommended entire term of home isolation. You can also speak to your doctor about what type of quarantine protocols would work best for your situation. That likely includes quarantining your baby, since they will have been exposed to the virus while in your care. This means that you and your baby will be spending a lot of time indoors!

In this case, support for a baby and mother becomes even more crucial. Communities need to bring meals, check in via Zoom, phone, text, and messenger apps, and run errands for breastfeeding parents affected by COVID-19.

While COVID-19 antibodies are not a substitute for proper masking and distancing protocol, and you should still exercise caution around your baby, there’s a lot of hope here, and an important takeaway: COVID-19 doesn’t mean you should stop nursing, and indeed gives you more reason to nurse than ever.

But remember that your health comes first. Yes, COVID-19 antibodies are great. But if you need to hand your baby off to other caregivers so you can recover from a deadly virus, you should not feel an ounce of guilt. And while we always throw our hands in the air for pumping moms, if you manage to pump while you are sick with COVID-19, Jill Biden will personally appear with a Congressional Medal of Honor.

Information about COVID-19 is rapidly changing, and Scary Mommy is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. With news being updated so frequently, some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For this reason, we are encouraging readers to use online resources from local public health departments, the Centers for Disease Control, and the World Health Organization to remain as informed as possible.