Breast is still best, even in the midst of Covid-19 pandemic

06 August 2020 - 16:01
It's World Breastfeeding Week and dietitians are encouraging mothers, including those with Covid-19, to continue breastfeeding. Stock image.
It's World Breastfeeding Week and dietitians are encouraging mothers, including those with Covid-19, to continue breastfeeding. Stock image.
Image: 123RF/Konstantin Pelikh

Misinformation and fear of transmitting Covid-19 to their infants is pushing new mothers to avoid breastfeeding.

In World Breastfeeding Week, which ends on Friday, the Association for Dietetics in SA (Adsa) has declared that breast milk is the “safest and most nutritious food for babies and Covid-19 does not change that”.

Adsa’s stance is supported by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which recently recommended that “mothers with suspected or confirmed Covid-19 should be encouraged to initiate or continue to breastfeed”.

“Mothers should be counselled that the benefits of breastfeeding substantially outweigh the potential risks for transmission,” it added.

Andiswa Ngqaka, a registered dietitian and Adsa spokesperson, said one of the most damaging falsehoods to emerge has been that Covid-19 positive mothers could transmit the virus through breast milk to their babies.

“There are anecdotes from various countries indicating that this misinformation is causing moms to avoid breastfeeding during the pandemic,” she said.

“While some may see infant formula as a ‘safer alternative’ during this time, this is not the case. As the medical profession’s foremost experts in nutrition, registered dietitians are constantly keeping up to date with the latest scientific evidence.

“Worldwide, there is currently no evidence that breastfed babies have been infected by mothers who have tested positive for Covid-19.”

Ngqaka said the WHO cited one study “where there was a detection of non-infectious Covid-19 viral RNA in breast milk, and this is definitely not the same thing as finding [a] viable and infectious virus. 

“Therefore, there is unanimous agreement across international health organisations that moms can have complete peace of mind breastfeeding their children through the pandemic, even if they are Covid-19 positive or suspect they might be infected. 

Worldwide, there is currently no evidence that breastfed babies have been infected by mothers who have tested positive for Covid-19.
Dietitian Andiswa Ngqaka

“The benefits of skin-to-skin contact with your baby and breastfeeding as normal are overwhelmingly immune-boosting and protective of your baby’s health,” she said.

Ngqaka said mothers too ill to breastfeed could try expressing.

“Expressing breast milk is important to sustain your milk production so you can carry on breastfeeding when you recover,” she said.

“If you can’t express your breast milk, you can consider donor human milk. Wet nursing is another option if culturally acceptable to you.

 “Your last option would be to provide a breast milk substitute.”

Adsa’s Lisanne du Plessis, who is also an associate professor at Stellenbosch University, said breastfeeding provided food security for babies.

“Breastfeeding from birth supports the healthy development of babies and plays an important role in prevention of all forms of childhood malnutrition, including wasting, stunting, obesity and underweight and micronutrient deficiencies,” she said.

At a time when many South African families are facing serious food shortages, breast milk provides complete food security for babies under six months.
Lisanne du Plessis

“Breast milk protects against many infections, including Covid-19.

“At a time when many South African families are facing serious food shortages, breast milk provides complete food security for babies under six months, and boosts nutrition and health for other young ones. 

“Breastfeeding saves on the food budget, making more money available to feed the family. 

“When it comes to food, you can’t get anything safer, more convenient and more economical than breast milk.

“It would make good sense to see a boost in breastfeeding across South Africa at this time.”

The WHO’s breastfeeding guidelines if you suspect or know you have Covid-19:

  • wash hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use alcohol-based hand rub, especially before touching the baby;
  • wear a medical mask during any contact with the baby, including while feeding;
  • sneeze or cough into a tissue, then dispose of it immediately and wash hands for at least 20 seconds again; and
  • routinely clean and disinfect surfaces that you have touched.   

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