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The protective benefits of breastfeeding for mothers and infants during a pandemic

Photo: Getty Images

Most people know about the profound benefits of breastfeeding for infants and mothers. As is the case in other natural disasters, the effects of breastfeeding are even more important now during this pandemic. During this period of uncertainty, breastfeeding is very important because it can protect infants from respiratory and gastrointestinal illnesses. Along the Gulf Coast, we have experienced disasters when clean water and food supplies are limited. At those times, we are reminded that mothers have the optimal nutrition resource readily available for their newborn infants.

When Hurricane Ike hit the Gulf Coast, I met a young mother who was evacuated from Louisiana to Houston with her newborn daughter. Her infant was admitted to our hospital for a short stay in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). I was called to help because the mother – who had planned on formula feeding – was experiencing discomfort related to breast engorgement. This condition, where a mother’s breast is over filled with milk and other fluids, is common during the first few days after birth when the mother’s milk volume is rapidly increasing and more noticeable if the milk is not expressed early and often.

I asked her if she would be willing to consider breastfeeding. She said she was going to be sent to San Antonio where there where temporary facilities set up to take the high influx of evacuees. After some discussion, she agreed to let me help her breastfeed her daughter. She was amazed – and I was relieved – when her daughter immediately latched on to her breast and began to feed. We discussed what would likely be an uncertain next couple of weeks, and that having the ability to provide the best nutrition for her baby – any place, any time – would reduce her stress considerably.

I gave her my contact information and asked her to let me know how she was doing in the next few days and weeks. Given the disruption in her life, I didn’t hold much hope that I would ever hear from her again. You can imagine my surprise when a few weeks later she contacted me to report that she was doing fine and so was her exclusively breastfed infant! I could hear in her voice how proud she was of her decision and accomplishment, especially during such an uncertain time.

Today, we can take lessons learned from our past hurricane experiences. This may not be a storm of high winds and widespread flooding, but it is a disaster causing uncertainty and anxiety for ourselves and others.

Mothers considering their choice for feeding their unborn infant should know the facts about breastfeeding and the transmission of viral infections. The CDC recommends that a mother with flu continue breastfeeding or feeding her expressed breast milk to her infant while taking precautions to avoid spreading the virus.

The CDC goes on to recommend mothers with a confirmed diagnosis of, or under investigation for COVID-19 take all safety precautions, such as washing her hands before touching her infant and wearing a mask, if possible, while feeding at the breast. Finally, the decision whether to start or continue breastfeeding should be determined by the mother in consultation with her family and health care providers. Knowing the facts and taking precautions when indicated will ensure the best outcomes for mothers and their infants.


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