The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) had approved breastfeeding if the mother with COVID-19 illness wore a facemask and sanitised her hand before feeding.

A woman wearing a black facemask carrying a babyImage for representation- File photo/PTI
Coronavirus Coronavirus Thursday, May 20, 2021 - 20:46

Thirty-four-year-old Selvi* (name changed), a resident of Anna Nagar in Tamil Nadu’s Chennai, contracted COVID-19 on May 10. She had been breastfeeding her one-year-old baby before testing positive for coronavirus. However, once she was diagnosed with COVID-19, Selvi stopped breastfeeding, fearing the baby would also get infected. Owing to this anxiety, she has decided to do away with breastfeeding completely, even after she recovers from the illness.

“It has been 10 days since I stopped feeding my baby,” says Selvi, who is observing home isolation. “The doctors had told me to feed my baby by wearing a mask. They said the virus will not spread through breast milk, and so I can continue giving milk with a mask on. However, my family members are scared and they do not want me to take the risk. I was also scared of infecting the baby and the other family members, so I stopped feeding her,” she says.

Selvi’s husband is now feeding the baby solid food. “I didn't see my baby for the first seven days after my infection was confirmed. Recently, when the baby saw me, she started asking for milk, but we managed to divert her attention. And now, we are thinking of stopping the mother’s milk,” she says. 

Selvi and her family’s fear is not an isolated case. In fact, this fear is prevalent among many new mothers, says Dr Raja Rao from Telangana, who is the Superintendent of Gandhi Hospital. “Some mothers are stopping for two weeks (during the period of isolation) but we are educating them,” he says.  

Dr Usha Rani, president of the National Neonatology Forum, Telangana, imputes this panic to the lack of awareness created by the Union and state governments. The governments are not widely spreading the message that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, does not transmit through breastfeeding, she says. 

In its guidelines ‘Guidance for Management of Pregnant Women in COVID-19 Pandemic’, issued in April 2020, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) had approved breastfeeding if the mother with COVID-19 illness wore a facemask and sanitised her hand before feeding. “If a mother and her newborn do room-in and the mother wishes to feed at the breast, she should put on a facemask and practice hand hygiene before each feeding,” read the guidelines, which were issued based on the recommendations of health agencies such as Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Federation of Obstetric and Gynaecological Societies of India (FOGSI).

However, these messages should be widely circulated and discussed, says Dr Usha Rani. “The first wave had a very few COVID-19 cases, but now, the cases have increased. So the governments should reiterate the guidelines of ICMR, and circulate the message that the virus does not spread through breast milk,” she says.

The National Neonatology Forum, Telangana, recently held a press meet in Hyderabad, allaying fears of mothers about infecting their newborns. “There is no evidence so far of virus transmission through breastfeeding. Mothers with COVID-19 and are healthy, should breastfeed the child, by taking precautions. If the mother is unwell, she could pump out the milk and feed the child,” Usha Rani says.  

In June 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) had concluded that vertical transmission (mother-to-child transmission of the virus) through breastfeeding is not possible, and said that the risk of COVID-19 among infants was “low”.

“The benefits of breastfeeding and nurturing mother-infant interaction to prevent infection and promote health and development are especially important when health and other community services are themselves disrupted or limited. Adherence to infection prevention and control measures is essential to prevent contact transmission between COVID-19 suspected or confirmed mothers and their newborns and young infants. Based on available evidence, WHO recommendations on the initiation and continued breastfeeding of infants and young children also apply to mothers with suspected or confirmed COVID-19,” WHO had said.

According to Usha Rani, in the second wave, there is widespread panic amongst people regarding COVID-19. “The parents who had contracted COVID-19 are sending their children to their grandparents' house. This is not recommended. It is a risk for elderly people. There is a possibility of spreading the virus to them. Instead, reverse isolation should be practised. The family can stay in the same home, and the infection rate among children is also low,” she explained.