Breastfeeding is an effective and proven public health practice that is also a culturally appropriate way of feeding infants and young children.
It is recommended that infants below age six months be given only breast milk.
These young infants will grow well on breast milk alone without any other fluids or foods. Not even water is needed because more than 80% of breast milk volume is water. When they turn six months, it is recommended that young children should be given breast milk together with suitable locally available and safe foods that may be home-made.
These recommendations on breastfeeding apply for almost all children.
The recommendations are based on the evidence that breast milk is rich with several components that enhance children’s ability to fight infections. In simple terms, breast milk can be considered a form of food-vaccine that protects children from infectious diseases.
As a result, the more breast milk children consume, the more protection they have. Indeed, the epidemiological studies have demonstrated that compared to those who formula feed, infants who breastfeeding for longer and more frequently are more likely they are to survive the first two years of life and to have low risk if infections. Even if they get sick, breastfed children are less likely to have severe disease.
The question that is on the mind of breastfeeding mother’s mind these last few days is, if I get Coronavirus, can I pass it to my breastfeeding child? The simple answer is that health care workers do not know yet know the answer to this question. What we do know is that the virus is spread from person-to-person mainly via respiratory droplets from an infected person’s fluids released through coughs or sneezes, just like influenza (the flu) and other respiratory infections.
We also know from tests of just a few coronavirus infected women in China is that the coronavirus was not detected in breast milk. So, whether mothers with COVID-19 can transmit the virus via breast milk to their infants remain unknown.
Given what we know about the protective effects of breastfeeding against many illnesses, the recommendation indicated by the World Health Organization is for an infected mother to continue breastfeeding while taking precautions to avoid spreading the virus to infant. These precautions include observing appropriate and frequent handwashing with soap and flowing water and wearing an appropriate nose mask.
Similar precautions should be exercised if the mother is expressing breast milk to feed the child. Beware of misinformation on social media and other news outlets that is promoting avoidance of breast milk. Avoiding breastfeeding during coronavirus infection is not based on the best evidence and must be rejected.
Professor Richmond Aryeetey, University of Ghana School of Public Health