The study of 55 infants born to mothers with COVID-19 found that none of them had contracted the virus – although most began to obtain breast milk in hospital.
The researchers said the findings support existing advice from public health authorities. Last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) said moms with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 may continue breastfeeding.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said breast milk is “not a likely source” of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and that infected mothers can breastfeed as long as they take certain precautions.
“If you wash your hands and wear a mask, there’s no reason you can’t breastfeed, ”said Dr. Marcel Yotebieng, associate professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.
Yotebieng co-wrote an editorial published with the new study on April 13 in the journal Pediatrics.
He said that while breastfeeding recommendations already exist, it is important that studies continue to follow if baby breast milk-related infections occur.
These latest findings do not rule out that possibility, said lead researcher Dr Noa Ofek Shlomai, who heads the neonatal unit at Hadassah and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Medical Center.
“But transmission through breast milk is most likely unlikely,” Shlomai said.
For the study, researchers followed 55 infants born at the Israeli medical center to mothers who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. All newborns tested negative for infection soon after giving birth.
Three-quarters of babies received breast milk during their hospital stay, and even more – 85% – were breastfed after returning home. None have been infected with the coronavirus, based on screening tests carried out two to three weeks after leaving the hospital.
Earlier in the pandemic, the Jerusalem hospital had a policy of separating newborns from their mothers with SARS-CoV-2. For this reason, the infants in this study received bottle-fed breast milk.
But Shlomai said it no longer seems necessary, as long as protective measures such as wearing a mask and washing hands are followed.
This is also in line with existing recommendations, Yotebieng noted. In general, the WHO recommends skin-to-skin contact and breastfeeding soon after the birth of an infant – and this also applies to mothers with COVID-19.
Yotebieng raised another question: is it possible that breast milk is providing these infants with antibodies to the virus? Such antibodies have been detected in the breast milk of infected women, Yotebieng said, but it is not known whether they help protect babies.
“That’s why we need more research,” he added.
What is becoming increasingly clear, Shlomai said, is that the risk of babies contracting COVID-19 through breastfeeding is “very low.”
And any risk should be weighed against the “huge” benefits of breastfeeding, according to Yotebieng.
On the one hand, it is believed to support the development of the immune system of babies. Breastfed babies are less likely to develop ear infections, diarrhea, asthma and severe lung infections, according to the CDC.
“We have to remember that there are also infections other than SARS-CoV-2,” Yotebieng said.
The World Health Organization has more on COVID-19 and breastfeeding.
SOURCES: Noa Ofek Shlomai, MD, head of neonatal unit, Hadassah and Hebrew University Medical Center, Jerusalem, Israel; Marcel Yotebieng, MD, PhD, MPH, associate professor, Division of General Internal Medicine, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York City; Pediatrics, April 13, 2021, online