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Should Mothers with COVID Breastfeed Their Babies?

FILE - Mothers nurse their children to mark the World Breastfeeding Week to promote global support for breastfeeding in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Aug. 4, 2018.

The World Health Organization says mothers’ milk is best for babies and that even goes for mothers who are infected with the novel coronavirus. As the world celebrates World Breastfeeding Week (August 1 to 7), health agencies are encouraging women to breastfeed their babies for a healthier planet.

Breastfeeding advocates are concerned that support services for new mothers are being interrupted because of COVID-19. They say social distancing rules are making it more difficult for them to receive the support and encouragement to nurse their babies.

Lawrence Grummer-Strawn, head of a WHO unit focused on food and nutrition in healthcare systems, says WHO and U.N. Children’s Fund are calling for increased investment to ensure women breastfeed their babies.

“That is particularly important at this time because we have documented through modeling that about 820,000 children’s lives are lost every year because of the lack of breastfeeding. And, economically, there are losses of about $300 billion per year in economic productivity lost because of the lack of breastfeeding,” he said.

Health agencies say breastfeeding protects children against diarrhea, the top killer in low-income countries. It protects babies against respiratory infections, leukemia and childhood obesity. It also protects mothers against breast and ovarian cancers and type-2 diabetes.

Grummer-Strawn tells VOA women sick with COVID-19 should not be afraid of breastfeeding their newborns. He says their babies will be safe. He adds mothers who breast feed their infants exclusively for six months will give them the best start in life.

“The reason for that is that the risks of transmission of the COVID-19 virus of a COVID-positive mother to her baby seem to be extremely low," he said. "We have never documented anywhere around the world any transmission through breast milk. That does not mean that it could not be possible somewhere, but it would appear to be extremely rare.”

Grummer-Strawn says the WHO is very concerned about what he calls the underhanded practices of the baby formula industry.

He says companies bribe health care workers to encourage mothers to bottle-feed their babies and provide free samples to mothers to get them hooked on their product.

In the context of COVID-19, he says, many companies present themselves as experts that can provide mothers with advice and support in these difficult times. He says doctors appearing on their websites offer advice about baby care in the time of COVID-19, which carry negative messages about breastfeeding.