Kathriona Devereux: How a mother’s breast-milk may help to defeat Covid-19

Breastmilk is a wonder treatment - it is food and medicine for babies and has remarkable long term health benefits for mothers’ health, so says Kathriona Devereux in her weekly column
Kathriona Devereux: How a mother’s breast-milk may help to defeat Covid-19

Covid-specific antibodies have been found in the breast-milk of a symptomatic mum feeding her child. Posed by model

HAVING a baby and becoming a parent is never an easy undertaking, but doing so in the midst of a pandemic brings new challenges.

I am a volunteer breastfeeding counsellor with Cuidiu, the national parent support organisation, and in pre-Covid-19 times I hosted a breastfeeding support group at Tory Top Library in Ballyphehane.

New, experienced and expectant mothers came for tea, chats and companionship because motherhood is a collection of emotional highs and lows and it’s nice to get guidance and talk to others going through the same thing.

It’s said “it takes a village to raise a child”, but it also takes a village to raise a parent, and when so many people now embark on parenthood at a distance from the traditional family support network, it falls to friends, neighbours, new ‘mom friends’ or online communities for support.

When my first child was born, I lost count of the amount of dinners and loads of laundry my mother did for me while I coped with my newborn.

Small babies are very demanding and mothers need lots of help while they recover from birth and master the art of breastfeeding.

With the current restrictions, new mothers don’t have a procession of visitors to entertain when they really should be resting after the birth, but they also don’t have regular community breastfeeding support or weigh-in clinics at health centres or volunteer support groups to go to and ask questions or seek assurances.

At the moment, much of that support is being offered virtually and over the phone. Public health nurses can refer mothers to HSE community lactation consultants for specific breastfeeding support and private lactation consultants are doing ‘home visits’ by video call and helping mothers and babies overcome any hurdles in their breastfeeding journeys.

Specific issues like tongue tie can really foil the best of breastfeeding intentions, but with timely interventions from a lactation consultant or doctor, a mother and baby can get back on track.

Volunteer groups like Cuidiu Cork and La Leche League Cork are hosting weekly breastfeeding support groups via Zoom as well as offering phone support from trained breastfeeding counsellors.

Both organisations have active Facebook groups offering peer support and experience from other parents in Cork.

Asking for help is key and new parents should seek help and support until their questions are answered.

Breastfeeding promotion and support is always important but, according to a recent paper in The Lancet: “To avoid further straining the health system during the Covid-19 pandemic, the best chance to keep infants healthy is to promote breastfeeding and a human milk diet.”

There is no evidence showing that the virus can be transmitted in breastmilk. The benefits of breastfeeding outweigh any potential risks of transmission of coronavirus through breastmilk.

Current advice is, if mothers are symptomatic or have tested positive, they should practice respiratory and hand hygiene and wear a mask around the baby, but obviously situations vary from case to case.

However, the vast majority of pregnant women and new mothers in Ireland have not contracted Covid-19 and as much as possible should be done to encourage and support any mother who wants to breastfeed.

If a pharmaceutical company was able to offer a completely safe and effective treatment that lowered heart disease, diabetes, obesity and breast cancer risks in women, while at the same time lowering death, cancer, obesity, diabetes, SIDS and infectious disease risk in children, most parents would happily fork out for it.

Breastmilk is this wonder treatment. It is food and medicine for babies and has remarkable long term health benefits for mothers’ health.

The female body produces tailored, personalised food and medicine for her baby for as long as the baby needs it. That scientists have discovered Covid-19 antibodies in the breastmilk of symptomatic mothers is no surprise.

Unfortunately, Ireland has lost much of its culture of breastfeeding and we have one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world — about half of Irish babies are breastfeeding leaving hospital and just 15% of babies are exclusively breastfed in their first six months.

The historical, political, sociological and economic reasons for the rise of infant formula and the fall of breastfeeding are complex and have filled many a book.

The infant formula industry spends €5 billion globally every year marketing its product to parents. A product, which they themselves admit, is inferior to the breastmilk that women make for free. Public health budgets to promote and support breastfeeding are miniscule in comparison.

But breastmilk got some free publicity last week with reports of a case study that identified Covid-specific antibodies in breastmilk from a symptomatic mum feeding her 13-month-old. Now bigger studies around the world are being launched to collect the breast milk of mothers who have tested positive to see if the milk contains Covid-19 specific antibodies.

Antibodies are made by the immune system to kill invading bacteria and viruses. Lactating mothers continually produce new antibodies and immune system boosters for their babies, depending on what germs the baby has been exposed to.

Some of this research aims to investigate a potential coronavirus treatment. Could researchers eventually isolate and replicate an antibody for treating coronavirus patients?

For me, this research is exciting because it may provide further proof of how amazing the female body is, and yet another reason why breastfeeding promotion and support needs to be properly recognised and funded for better public health.

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