New and expectant mothers may wonder whether they should nurse their babies during the COVID-19 pandemic. Concerns about spread of the disease from an asymptomatic mother to child or transmission through breast milk may have some women who would otherwise breastfeed considering formula for their newborns. 

Recent research indicates that the benefits of providing human milk to neonates far outweigh the risk. In an editorial in the Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic & Neonatal Nursing, Diane Lynn Spatz, PhD, RN-BC, professor of perinatal nursing and professor of nutrition at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, encouraged all healthcare professionals to work together to encourage breastfeeding to protect infants during this challenging time.

"We should use this pandemic as a way to increase visibility of the critical role of human milk and breastfeeding for all families at all times and educate the public about the importance of the use of human milk and breastfeeding as lifesaving medical interventions," said Dr. Spatz. 

Breast milk protects infants from infectious diseases by transferring antibodies from the mother to her child as well as providing a solid foundation for physical and mental development. 

Studies of women with COVID-19 and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) found that neither virus could be detected in breast milk, but transmission could not be entirely ruled out, according to the CDC. 

“Considering the benefits of breastfeeding and the insignificant role of breastmilk in the transmission of other respiratory viruses, the mother can continue breastfeeding, while applying all the necessary precautions,” the United Nation’s Children’s Fund advised earlier this year. If separation of mother and child is required, expression of breast milk should be encouraged, Dr. Spatz said.

Mothers with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 can minimize the risk of spread of infection through respiratory droplets by wearing a mask when they nurse the baby, regularly washing hands and keeping surfaces disinfected. If they choose to express, they should ensure that they wash their hands before handling the pump or bottle parts and that all parts are cleaned thoroughly after use, advises the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Mothers may also choose to have someone who is not sick give the bottle of expressed milk to the baby.

The World Health Organization encourages women who are too ill to breastfeed to consider providing breast milk to their baby with donor human milk or by expressing milk or relactation.
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