At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a lack of clear research on whether coronavirus could be transmitted via breast milk. Different health organizations in the United States and abroad took varying degrees of caution in their recommendations, and hospitals made their own calls about whether to encourage breastfeeding in the maternity ward.
Now, most major health groups agree: It’s best to encourage new mothers to breastfeed, even if they have been exposed to or even tested positive for COVID-19.
Studies have not found that coronavirus can be passed on through lactation, and the immune benefits of breastmilk likely outweigh the risks, experts say. But confusion around this topic early on may have turned off some new moms, said TaNefer Camara, an Oakland-based lactation consultant.
“There was a lot of mixed messages,” she said. “Some people were told not to breastfeed … some people were told if you are gonna breastfeed, you’ve gotta wear a mask, wash your breasts, be six feet away from your baby. … It was like all this stuff making it sound really impossible.”
Camara says this may have discouraged some Black women, who are already less likely to breastfeed than women of other races. In California, only 61% of Black moms start breastfeeding at the hospital, compared to 81% of white moms.
To further complicate the issue, Camara says many hospitals are limiting the number of people who can interact with maternity patients, and sending moms home after 24 hours.
“That first 24 hours in the hospital, it’s not really a whole lot to do with breastfeeding,” she said. “But that second day, that second night when your milk starts to come in, your breasts start filling, that’s when people need support.”
Women across the U.S. are celebrating Black Breastfeeding Week from now through the end of August in hopes of inspiring more women to continue the practice. Advocates say it’s also an opportunity to combat a problematic history of Black women being forced to breastfeed slave owners’ children. Advocates say sisterhood, information and success stories are crucial to helping Black women feel comfortable nursing.
And that sort of motivation is particularly important during this stressful time, said Tyra Gross, who studies maternal health at Xavier University of Louisiana. She gave birth to a baby boy three months ago.
“He's a Black male child in America, being born in the middle of a pandemic and political unrest and police brutality and all these different things,” she said. “How do I balance preserving a breastfeeding relationship with all of the other stresses of society, juggling multiple kids and the husband and the career and being in the sandwich generation of aging parents?”
Gross pointed out that many grandparents who would normally help with infant care are staying isolated due to the pandemic, which could further overwhelm new moms.
Still, she says it’s important for doctors and public health groups to urge women — and especially Black women — to stay dedicated to breastfeeding for the health of themselves and their infants.
“Even if there is disease transmission … previous studies before COVID have shown that breastfeeding helps baby's health and development in general,” she said. “When I think about safety, I think of the longer- term picture.”
In California, breastfeeding advocates have been working hard to make clear that immune benefits for moms and babies could provide some protection from the virus.
Robbie Gonzalez-Dow, executive director of the California Breastfeeding Coalition, said they’ve increased their educational offerings during the pandemic.
“This is really not the time to not benefit,” she said. “It’s not just about the baby’s health, but there’s a lot in it for mom to breastfeed, and we’re not sure that message is always getting out."
Black women nationwide are posting photos of themselves breastfeeding this week in an effort to break down stigma around the practice in their community.
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