The outbreak of the novel Coronavirus pandemic has brought in its wake, new ways of doing things and adjustments in the way people live and interact everywhere in the world.
From China in Asia, through New York in America, through Italy in Europe, to Ghana in Africa, citizens, are being encouraged to observe some hygienic protocols including regular hand washing with soap under running water, regular sanitizing of hands, wearing of face masks when going out of the house as well as practicing physical distancing at workplaces, in churches, funeral gatherings and in the general society.
Thankfully, however, breastfeeding, an essential part of nurturing and caring for new born babies and young infants has not been affected in anyway, but rather, remains the same, whether a mother is infected with the Coronavirus or not.
Research has indicated that mothers infected with the COVID-19 cannot transmit the virus via breast milk.
This is good news because the COVID-19 virus has not been detected in breast milk, the new research has explained.
Breastfeeding of ones new-born baby or young infant, is one of such life’s event that could not be underestimated no matter what.
That is why mothers with or without COVID-19 are being encouraged to continue to breastfeed their new-borns, just as in the case of mothers living with HIV.
Breastfeeding protects against morbidity and mortality in the post-neonatal period and throughout infancy and childhood. Early initiation of breastfeeding, has been known to be important for both the mother and the child.
In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) has emphasized that the risk of COVID-19 infection from breastfeeding is negligible and has never been documented.
Calling for greater support for breastfeeding during the 2020 World Breastfeeding Week (August 1 to 7), the WHO, warned that not using mother’s milk is linked to 820,000 child deaths a year, at a cost to the global economy of $300 billion.
The WHO has kept on with its call that breastfeeding should “absolutely continue” even if the Coronavirus continue.
Dr. Laurence Grummer-Strawn, Head of WHO’s Food and Nutrition Action in Health Systems unit, said: “We have never documented, anywhere around the world, any (COVID-19) transmission through breastmilk.”
Having tested the breastmilk of “many” mothers around the world in a variety of studies, the WHO official explained that although a few samples had contained the virus, “when they followed up to see whether the virus was actually viable and could be infective, they could not find any actual infective virus”.
In reiterating the WHO’s longstanding support for using mother’s milk over substitutes, Dr. Grummer-Strawn also expressed regret that the pandemic had weakened essential breastfeeding support usually provided to families with newborns.
Numerous good things come from breastfeeding – for the child and their mother in developing and industrialized countries, WHO had maintained.
“Breastfeeding provides benefits during the time of breastfeeding, and those that are most recognised are protection against diarrhoea, which is one of the top causes of mortality in low-income countries, protection against respiratory infections, against obesity – childhood obesity later on – as children get older, protection against leukaemia,” said Dr. Grummer-Strawn.
For mothers, breastfeeding protects against breast cancer and may protect against ovarian cancer and type two diabetes. And so, it is so beneficial for mothers to continue to breastfeed their babies whether or not COVID-19 continues to scare us.
Breastfeeding is particularly effective against infectious diseases because it strengthens the immune system by directly transferring antibodies from the mother.
That is why, it is proper that pregnant women and all newborn mothers understand the importance of breastfeeding their babies in spite of the existence of COVID-19 pandemic, which still rages on.
As the world continue to find a sure medication or vaccine for the virus, life surely must go on amidst the observance of the necessary hygiene protocols that have proven to protect people from getting infected with the virus.
Ms Awurabena Quayeba Dadzie, Technical Programmes Manager, Health, Nutrition & HIV/AIDS, World Vision Ghana, has explained to the Ghana News Agency that early suckling stimulates the release of prolactin that helps in the production of milk, and oxytocin, which is responsible for the ejection of milk.
It also stimulates contraction of the uterus after childbirth and reduces postpartum blood loss in mothers.
She explained further that the first milk known as colostrum, produced in the first few days after delivery, was highly nutritious and contains antibodies that provide natural immunity to the infant.
“It is recommended that children be fed colostrum immediately after birth (within one hour) and that they continue to be exclusively breastfed even if the regular breast milk has not yet started to flow,” Ms Dadzie said.
A 2014 Ghana Demographic Health Survey reports has indicated that almost all children in Ghana (98 percent) were breastfed at some point in their life, while 52 percent of children younger than six months were exclusively breastfed. The report indicates that the median duration of exclusive breastfeeding is about four months, which is good news.
However, the country risk losing some of these gains chalked over the years considering the spread and increase in COVID-19 cases among the populace.
According to Ms Dadzie, some mothers, are feared to deny breastfeeding their infants if they are confirmed as having been infected with COVID-19, or people who are presumptive for COVID-19.
Allaying the fears of such mother, Ms Dadzie said, as with all confirmed or suspected COVID-19 cases, mothers with any symptoms who were breastfeeding or practicing skin-to-skin contact are advised to take precautions.
All mothers in affected and at-risk areas who have symptoms of fever, cough or difficulty breathing, are also advised to seek medical care early.
She advised that whether and how a mother, with confirmed or suspected COVID-19, should start or continue providing breastmilk should be determined by the mother in consultation with her family and healthcare providers in line with the Ministry of Health or the Ghana Health Service guidance.
The consultation, should consider the latest evidence on COVID-19 transmission and the risks associated with the use of a breastmilk substitute within the context.
A confirmed and suspected COVID-19 mother should take all possible precautions to avoid spreading the virus to her child, including washing her hands before and after touching the infant, and wearing a protective face mask, if possible, while feeding at the breast -as well as and regularly cleaning or disinfecting surfaces.
If the mother is expressing breast milk with a manual or electric breast pump, she is advised to wash her hands before touching any pump or bottle parts and ensure proper pump cleaning after each use. The expressed breastmilk should be fed to the child using a clean cup or a spoon, preferably by a person who has no signs or symptoms of illness.
Mothers should also learn to practice respiratory hygiene, including during feeding, as well as use a medical mask when near their child if they experience respiratory symptoms such as shortness of breath.
Ms Dadzie advised that if a mother is severely ill with COVID-19 or suffer from other complications that may prevent her from caring for her infant or continuing direct breastfeeding, she should express milk to safely provide breastmilk to her infant.
Such a mother who can explore the possibility of relactation, (restarting breastfeeding after a gap), or wet nursing (another woman breastfeeding or caring for her child), or using donor human milk.
Again, operators at the mother and child facilities should avoid promoting breastmilk substitutes, feeding bottles, teats, pacifiers or dummies in any part of the facilities.
They should rather enable mothers and infants to remain together and practice skin-to-skin contact, and rooming-in throughout the day and night, especially straight after birth, during establishment of breastfeeding, whether or not the mother or child has confirmed COVID-19 infection or not.
Moreover, mothers with infants or young children with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 infections, are to seek breastfeeding counselling, basic psychosocial support, or practical feeding support from appropriately trained health care professionals and also community-based lay and peer breastfeeding counsellors.
All new mothers, should endeavour to initiate breastfeeding within one hour of the birth, as well as continue exclusive breastfeeding for six months, then introduce adequate and safe complementary foods at age six months, while they continue breastfeeding up to two years of age or beyond.
Above all the benefits of breastfeeding, it had been estimated that over 820,000 children’s lives could be saved every year, if all children 0-23 months were optimally breastfed.
Adherence to infection prevention and control measures is essential to prevent contact transmission between COVID-19 suspected or confirmed mothers and their newborns and young infants.
Governments should, therefore, protect and promote women’s access to skilled breastfeeding counselling.