There’s a reason they call it liquid gold and we cry if we accidentally spill it after a 3 a.m. pumping session. Why we let ourselves become engorged, soak through our shirts at Thanksgiving dinner, and sit on a bench at the zoo on a 98-degree day wrangling a sweaty, hangry baby under our shirt. Breastmilk has got the goods, and even during this COVID-19 crisis when it seems the world has stopped spinning, we continue to learn more and more about its incredible value.
**Disclaimer: This article is in no way meant to shame mothers who do not breastfeed. Every mother should do what is best for her own mental and physical health. For a myriad of reasons that are no one’s business but hers, many mothers opt for formula, which is a perfectly safe means of feeding their baby.**
According to an article on Insider, NYC human milk immunologist (which sounds like the coolest job ever, tbh) Rebecca Powell is collecting and studying breast milk samples from lactating women, including those who may have been exposed to COVID-19.
To conduct her study, this mom of three (one of whom is still breastfeeding) puts on her mask and treks across New York City to pick up milk from other lactating women. One day she crossed three boroughs to collect a sample, which shows her level of commitment to this study.
Powell, who is an assistant professor of medicine and infectious diseases at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine, safely collects her breastmilk samples via contactless delivery in order to research “whether breast milk helps protects babies from the disease, and whether components of the milk can help lead to a coronavirus treatment.”
Most moms already know that breastmilk contains natural antibodies to help infants fight off infection and disease, but how about during a worldwide health crisis like this one? Can we do more and learn more from the power of breastmilk?
“Antibodies are proteins created by the immune system to neutralize invaders like bacteria and viruses. In some cases, they can be used therapeutically, like for certain cancers or even to treat rabies in humans,” Insider explains. “Scientists have been studying those that respond to COVID-19 in blood for both testing and treatment purposes, but less attention has been paid to their power in human milk.”
But knowing how incredibly valuable and chock full of good stuff breastmilk is, why not pay more attention to it, especially right now?
Rebecca Powell and her team agree.
Their lab was already studying the antibody found in breastmilk that helps fight the flu, and were already researching how this antibody might protect infants after moms were vaccinated.
So when the coronavirus struck, it made sense for them to expand their research.
“It seemed obvious to me that everything we don’t know about flu is a million times more unknown and relevant about COVID-19,” Powell said. “I immediately felt the urgency to initiate a study.”
Published on May 8, her team’s preliminary study included 15 breast milk samples from women who’ve recovered from COVID-19 and 10 negative-COVID-19 samples taken from women before December 2019. And they found that 80% of the COVID-19 survivors had an antibody in their breast milk specific to the illness.
Again, liquid gold.
These findings tell Rebecca Powell that there is value in continuing her research on breastmilk and COVID-19 antibodies, especially since “breast milk antibodies are well-known to help protect babies from various diseases like measles while they’re too young to receive a vaccine, and breastfeeding is also associated with a lower risk of conditions including some gastrointestinal conditions, diabetes, asthma, and sudden infant death syndrome,” Insider says.
Furthermore, breastmilk antibodies come in the IgA form, which means they are “designed to not fall apart when it’s in the baby’s mouth or stomach,” Powell says, who adds that the IgA form is “quite durable.” This means that breastmilk antibodies, more so than those that come in other forms, may allow them to hold up well “if used therapeutically, like through an IV.”
Powell’s study also furthers support for continuing to breastfeed, even through the pandemic. There is no evidence that the virus passed through breastmilk, and, in fact, has been proven to be an extra healthy boost for babies. Although the info we know about COVID-19 continues to evolve, the general policy from the American Academy of Pediatrics is to keep nursing, even through illness.
“Through breastfeeding, the infant will receive the antibodies that the mother is producing to fight the illness. Most infectious diseases are also not a cause for weaning or interruption. Generally, by the time a disease has been diagnosed, the infant has been exposed and will probably benefit more from the protection he gets from his mother’s breast milk than from weaning,” AAP states.
If the mother is not isolated away from the child, the CDC recommends the following:
- Wash your hands before touching your baby
- Wear a face mask, if possible, while feeding at the breast
- Wash your hands before touching pump or bottle parts and clean all parts after each use
Unfortunately, despite such promising findings, major funding for breastmilk research continues to be scarce. Powell thinks this is because the topic of breastfeeding is so controversial, and sometimes even taboo. With our country’s abysmal maternity leave policies, so many women don’t breastfeed as they are forced to return to work within a few short weeks. Also, Insider explains, “it can be difficult to study and collect human milk, and there’s no single governing body to oversee those processes.”
But Powell used the best leverage she has—motherhood. As a breastfeeding mom who’s well-connected to other lactating moms in the community, she was able to network through personal relationships and find donors on social media. And, as shown on her Facebook page, she was willing to do the literal legwork and travel all over the city to collect the data she needed.
The word is out though, about how valuable this research can be as the world scrambles to find a treatment for COVID-19. Rebecca has already personally collected about 25 1-ounce samples from new moms who had COVID-19 and recovered. But even more promising is that she has approximately 1,500 people—including 400 who have already been infected—who have signed up to participate.
Even without massive funding, Powell knows she’s doing good, valuable work, as the simple act of “collecting milk samples during this pandemic can yield important epidemiological information in the future, aid researchers developing vaccines, and fill in important gaps in breast milk research.”
Just another kickass scientist mom getting shit done. As moms do.
If you’d like to help Rebecca Powell’s research study, you can contact her at: COVID19HumanMilkStudy@gmail.com.