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Should moms continue to breastfeed if they fear they have the coronavirus? 

  • Emily Kopko, of Somersworth, works 12-hour shifts as an emergency room nurse at Portsmouth Regional Hospital. Once during the shift she takes a break to pump breastmilk for her 13-month-old twins. Pumping is time-intensive under any circumstances, but lately Kopko’s routine is even more arduous: she washes her hands twice, wipes down the area she’s pumping in and takes care not to breath on the bags that she’s pouring milk into. “It’s definitely nerve-racking,” she says. —Courtesy

Granite State News Collaborative
Published: 4/8/2020 9:45:40 AM
Modified: 4/8/2020 9:45:30 AM

Kristi White thought she was having asthma symptoms when she started experiencing wheezing and shortness of breath a few weeks ago.

When her doctor’s office told her to self-isolate at home in Bow because it was possible that she had coronavirus, White was immediately concerned about her two-month-old son, Elijah, who is breastfed. 

She asked the nurse whether she could continue to safely feed Elijah, but received an answer that wasn’t exactly reassuring: “That’s up to you.”

For breastfeeding mothers around New Hampshire, the uncertainty of the coronavirus is compounded by the stress of deciding how best to feed their children and keep them safe from the outbreak. Some parents — like White — are frustrated by a lack of information about what to do if they experience symptoms while nursing. Others are committing to breastfeeding for longer than they anticipated, hoping that the antibodies in breastmilk will offer some protection if their children should become sick. Some new moms are trying to get started breastfeeding without the lactation support that is usually available immediately postpartum. 

“There is a lot of conflicting information out there right now about breastfeeding and this virus,” says Sara Hiland, RN, a lactation consultant with a private practice based in Bedford. 

The main message, Hiland emphasizes, is that breastfeeding is safe. Both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that women continue to breastfeed, even if they are diagnosed with coronavirus. Moms with the virus should take precautions like wearing a face mask and washing their hands before holding their baby, the organizations recommend. Early research indicates that COVID-19 cannot be passed through breastmilk, and for many illnesses, including the flu, antibodies passed through breastmilk can offer protection to infants. 

Knowing that, White decided to continue breastfeeding despite her symptoms. She and Elijah went into quarantine for a week, staying away from White’s husband, two-year-old and father, who also lives in the home. White nursed Elijah and pumped milk for her toddler, “in hopes that it would help their fragile immune systems and give them antibodies to fight it, if they became sick with COVID,” she says. Luckily, neither of the children showed symptoms. 

Nursing — and pumping — on the front lines

Emily Kopko, of Somersworth, works 12-hour shifts as an emergency room nurse at Portsmouth Regional Hospital. Once during the shift she takes a break to pump breastmilk for her 13-month-old twins. Pumping is time-intensive under any circumstances, but lately Kopko’s routine is even more arduous: she washes her hands twice, wipes down the area she’s pumping in and takes care not to breath on the bags that she’s pouring milk into. 

“It’s definitely nerve-racking,” she says. 

She was planning to wean her daughters when they turned one, but decided to continue breastfeeding given the pandemic.  

“I’m hoping that by keeping up with feeding them breast milk, that they will at least continue with some passive immunity to any virus or illness I may have been exposed to,” she says. 

If the emergency room becomes inundated with coronavirus patients in the coming weeks, she won’t have the time or ability to pump safely for the girls, she says. That would likely leave her with engorgement and mastitis, painful conditions that mothers can experience when they don’t nurse or pump as often as their body is accustomed to. Over time, pumping and nursing less can lead to a drop in milk supply. 

“I’m so thankful right now that my girls are older and my thoughts and prayers are with all the moms of new babies in the hospital system that will have to make hard decisions during this time,” she says. 

Disrupting early breastfeeding support

When the coronavirus crisis became more serious last month and people began panic-buying supplies, Wendy Jordan, of Exeter, felt that her job was more important than ever. As a lactation consultant at Lawrence General Hospital in Lawrence, Massachusetts, she worked to help new mothers breastfeed in the first few days after delivery, a time that is critical for establishing milk supply. She worried about whether moms who needed formula would be able to find it on store shelves. 

“Breastfeeding is sustainable,” she says. “It feels a little more intense to me right now. There’s more weight on the decision to breastfeed and what we do in the hospital.”

However, Jordan was soon furloughed from Lawrence General. Moms and babies at the hospital are being discharged as soon as 24 hours after delivery in order to minimize their risk for contracting coronavirus. That left little time for lactation support. Jordan says it’s the right decision to get health moms and infants out of the hospital quickly, but she worries about how it will impact breastfeeding. 

“We didn’t have time to put something in place,” she says. “The number in our office is not being manned. We have no resources for them.”

Because of the virus, Jordan isn’t comfortable doing home visits through her small private practice. While some lactation consultants and breastfeeding support groups have moved online, there’s some support — like helping an infant latch successfully — that can’t be easily delivered via video chat. 

“Moms need hands-on, physical assistance,” Jordan says.

Some New Hampshire hospitals are still offering in-person lactation consults, and Hiland has started offering free email consultations in hopes of providing support when it’s most needed. 

“I am really worried about all of those moms who I know are in need of help, but who are not seeking it, or who do not know where to go, or maybe who are too scared to reach out,” she says. 

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org. 




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