Pregnancy and the birth of a child is an occasion for celebration. While the happiness on the arrival of a new member in the family is unparalleled, the natural instinct of every new parent is concern –about their baby’s health, their milk intake, their everyday growth and progress. In a normal situation, parents would have access to obstetricians and pediatricians for their queries and they would visit their doctors in the clinic to get the answers. Today, in the wake of the ongoing global pandemic of coronavirus, social distancing is becoming the norm and parents are being advised to be at home as much as possible. Plus, the care and caution to be practiced around a new-born have become vital concerns. Given the volatility of newly emerging data on COVID-19 there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding maternal and childcare practices. Thankfully, the effects of the virus are not selectively severe on pregnant and lactating mothers or on newborns as per the latest data available.
But especially in these times, we must remember that the protective effect of breastfeeding is particularly strong against infectious diseases. Breastfeeding protects against illnesses and death in the post-neonatal period, throughout infancy and childhood. For this, breastfeeding should be initiated within the first hour of birth. Exclusive breastfeeding should continue for six months with timely introduction of adequate, safe and properly fed complementary foods at age six months, while continuing breastfeeding up to two years of age or beyond.
As of now we do not have any evidence of vertical transmission of the virus from pregnant women to the fetus or from mothers to newborns through breastfeeding. But it is paramount that mothers maintain utmost hygiene in the face of today’s crisis. Close contact or as its said skin to skin contact is a must for the baby and the mother & the two should be in the same room. Keeping the surface, room and your own hands clean, is vital. Breastfeeding mothers should wash hands before and after touching the baby. In the event that the new mother is a suspected, probable, or confirmed COVID-19 patient, she should continue recommended feeding practices with necessary hygiene precautions (recommended as per World Health Organization) during feeding. A confirmed COVID-19 or a symptomatic mother should wear a protective face mask, if possible, while feeding to avoid spreading the virus to her infant. If the mother is expressing breast milk with a manual or electric breast pump, she should wash her hands before touching any pump or bottle parts and ensure proper pump cleaning after each use. Keeping a distance of at least one meter in various necessary interactions and activities is also necessary as is avoiding non-essential travel, gatherings and functions to celebrate birth of a new child which is a common cultural practice. Families and caregivers should ensure that the diet of the mother should be nutritious and balanced so as to improve her health and if she is isolated from the newborn, she should be offered psychological assessment and support.
The reach and impact of this global pandemic we are witnessing is unprecedented. Optimal breastfeeding practices are now more important than ever. It is crucial that young parents focus on evidence-based information. Decisions taken in these turbulent times should not be under the influence of fake news or misinformation. For safeguarding the health of newborns, continuing breastfeeding is a scientifically proven measure. It is paramount for ensuring that the child receives the best start of his/her life.
(The author is an MD (Pediatrics) and Associate Professor (Adjunct), Dept of CTARA, IIT Mumbai)