Many of us have heard about the benefits of breastfeeding and its positive effects on the health and wellbeing of children, mothers, and their families, as well as for the environment and society as a whole. Is protecting children’s health and wellbeing important to you? Have you thought about where you fit into the warm chain of support and how you are contributing? The focus of this year’s World Breastfeeding Week is protecting breastfeeding and framing it as a shared responsibility. How does COVID-19 affect breastfeeding? Find out more in this article.
Breastfeeding and COVID-19: an inevitable discussion
It is impossible to talk about maternal and child health without mentioning the pandemic. Well over a year into the COVID-19 health crisis, we have accumulated very extensive evidence that lets us understand and stand behind breastfeeding as the best nourishment for humans, even in emergencies like the one we currently face.
To date, there is no evidence of the virus spreading through breastmilk, and we know that a pregnant or breastfeeding woman who is vaccinated against SARS Cov-2 develops antibodies that are passed on to the baby and protect it. Unfortunately, concerns about contagion led many health establishments to discontinue practices that help women and their babies start and continue breastfeeding. We now know that breastfeeding and skin-to-skin contact in the first hour of a newborn’s life are safe practices, as is breastfeeding on cue, whether or not the mother has COVID.
Innovations in breastfeeding? Absolutely!
The pandemic also lent momentum to positive dynamics like remote work, which allowed many women to be closer to their children to continue breastfeeding them. However, many policies do not provide the social protection fathers and partners need to promote and protect breastfeeding.
Along with remote work, we have also seen a rise in telemedicine systems and virtual breastfeeding support groups. At the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador, we used to hold in-person breastfeeding counseling sessions every two weeks as part of a project by the university’s School of Medicine and Ecuador’s Institute of Public Health. Before the pandemic, an average of 10 mothers participated in each session, and sometimes no one turned up on rainy or cold days. But when we moved the sessions to a virtual format, we were surprised to see up to 80 mothers connecting for each session!
Laws protecting breastfeeding mothers
The superiority of human breast milk has been proven beyond doubt. The liquid is a living tissue that holds cells, immunological compounds, hormones, and enzymes. Multiple studies have shed light on the changes that occur in nursing mothers’ brains and how early breastfeeding increases oxytocin levels to trigger milk production and ejection, in addition to causing psychological adaptations to make way for motherhood and a unique and emotional mother-child bond.
In clinical practice, formula milk should be prescribed in certain situations, and some mothers should resort to this alternative. To protect these mothers and their families against products that could interfere with breastfeeding, the 34th World Health Assembly approved the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes. Unfortunately, many governments have yet to truly monitor and control the code’s enforcement, and now they need to regulate these virtual spaces as well.
For breastfeeding to be successful, there needs to be a warm chain of support and protection within families, at work, in communities, at health establishments, and in government protection policies, which should also properly address crisis and emergency situations.
This warm chain of support has three objectives: protect breastfeeding by developing strategies for collaboration and conflict of interest safeguards; provide support through training, technical support, and research to enhance health professionals’ knowledge and skills; and promote linkages with other stakeholders to create the chain in their community. Tell us where you fit into the chain and how you are contributing.
At the Inter-American Development Bank, we work to improve lives in Latin America and the Caribbean. Our vision for 2025 is to promote growth opportunities for all in a sustainable way. Learn more in this video.