How can breast milk help newborn babies fight against Covid-19?

Breast milk is considered to be nutrient-rich, which is why it must be provided to babies to stay protected against Covid-19.
breast milk
Babies can build their immunity with the help of breast milk. Image courtesy: Shutterstock
Dr Babu S Madarkar Updated: 30 Oct 2023, 13:20 pm IST
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Breast milk is the best nutrition available for a newborn. However, the past two years have left a lot of new mothers questioning themselves. Mothers were concerned about whether they might pass on the SARS-CoV-2 virus to their babies while breastfeeding.

The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) announcement that the benefits of breast milk outweigh the risk of transmission has helped them heave a sigh of relief. It has highlighted the fact that human milk can help babies fight Covid-19, according to studies. If a lactating mother is infected with a bacteria or virus, her body will develop antibodies against the infection and these will be passed on to the infant through breast milk.

These antibodies have been known to protect infants against the flu, gut infections, respiratory tract, and middle ear infections, and childhood leukemia. It also helps to reduce the risk of developing diabetes and obesity at a later age.

Breast milk boosts immunity

Breast milk is considered liquid gold because of its nutritive and protective value. A baby’s immune system takes a few months after birth to mature. Breast milk contains antibodies known as immunoglobins that are constantly changing to meet an infant’s needs.

top breastfeeding positions for nursing moms
Breastfeeding is more important than you think. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

Can human milk transmit milk-borne antibodies specific to the SARS-CoV-2 virus?

According to a study by the University of Rochester Medical Centre (URMC) and other university researchers, breast milk of Covid-positive mothers contains milk-borne antibodies.

The study looked at 37 human milk samples produced by 18 women who had earlier been diagnosed with the virus. None of the milk samples tested positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

However, about two-thirds of the samples had antibodies that can help neutralize the effects of the virus. The milk samples had high levels of a common antibody found in human body fluid and blood known as IgA.

Another study looked at the transmission of antibodies formed as a result of vaccination. Researchers studied 504 breastmilk milk samples taken from 84 women. The samples were collected before vaccination and weekly for 6 weeks after the first vaccine shot.

There’s no reason to be apprehensive about breastfeeding during the pandemic, but apply caution and care. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

They found that the mean levels of IgA antibodies specific to fighting SARS-CoV-2 in the sample taken 2 weeks after vaccination were much higher than that of the earlier samples. Neither the mothers nor the babies suffered any serious adverse effects during the study.

Since there is no known vaccination available for infants as yet, it is hoped that passing on antibodies through human milk can protect babies against Covid-19. So, it is considered safe for women to breastfeed their infants regardless of their exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

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Necessary precautions during breastfeeding in Covid-19 times

Babies should be exclusively breastfed for at least the first 6 months. In the sixth month, an infant can be introduced to solid foods. However, this does not mean that breastfeeding must be stopped. You may continue to breastfeed your child along with giving them solid foods.

Though the virus is not transmitted through breast milk, it is very important to follow good hygiene while breastfeeding. Mothers must wear a mask and wash their hands thoroughly before and after picking up the baby. All surfaces must be disinfected regularly. If you have contracted the disease, you may choose to express breast milk and feed the same to your baby through a spoon to minimise skin-to-skin contact.

Breastfeeding challenges

There are many cases where mothers either do not produce sufficient breast milk or are too unwell to breastfeed. In such cases, the store-bought formula is not the only option available. It is better to consider donor human milk for your baby.

Donor human milk refers to breast milk that has been donated by healthy lactating mothers who have been screened and tested. Many women produce more milk than required by their babies. This breast milk is collected from women who pass stringent screening measures. Their milk is tested and pasteurized, so as to be safe for consumption. Like your breast milk, donor human milk contains essential nutrients required for the healthy mental and physical growth and antibodies to protect the baby from infections.

Also, watch:

Human milk donation in Covid-19 times is need of the hour

It is a well-established fact that human milk has immunological factors that are highly protective against various infections including Covid-19. Giving pasteurized donor human milk to sick and premature infants who lack access to their own mother’s milk, helps them fight these infections by providing passive immunity. Irrespective of the fact that the mother has tested positive for Covid-19 or not, lactating mothers can donate their excess breast milk for needy infants, giving them a chance to see a healthier future.

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About the Author

Dr Babu S Madarkar, Senior Consultant Neonatologist, Rainbow Children's Hospital, Bengaluru  ...Read More

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