Even during a pandemic, breastfeeding is still the best way to nourish newborns, according to a UBC Okanagan nursing professor and women’s health expert.
Marie Tarrant is the director of the School of Nursing at UBC Okanagan and a researcher on women’s health and breastfeeding. Her most recent research has found an increase in mothers feeding their infants only pumped breast milk. Less than half of women in her study directly breastfed their babies — something she said is a common trend across Asia, North America and Europe.
“This is a good news; bad news story,” said Tarrant, who undertook the study with her University of Hong Kong doctoral student, Heidi Fan.
“While it’s great that the babies are initially getting breast milk instead of formula, these women are more likely to switch to formula earlier than recommended.”
She said new mothers should breastfeed their infants for the first six months as breast milk meets the diverse nutritional needs of newborns and protects them against viral and bacterial infections.
Breastfeeding, while possibly a little more challenging in times of social distancing, is still necessary through the COVID-19 pandemic, Tarrant maintains.
“Changes away from at-home visits to online platforms are less hands-on and this may make it difficult for everyone,” she says. “Getting an infant to latch on can be trying in the early postpartum and often the best solution is an in-person demonstration.”
Tarrant recommended that new mothers set up a support system early, reaching out to public health nurses and experienced peers.
“Don’t wait until you’re desperate for help… Health care professionals can come to your home and are able to safely provide guidance. Peers can provide much-needed psychological support and encouragement. Moms need to know that they are not alone.”
Tarrant said there’s currently no evidence that COVID-19 passes through breast milk.
“Most organizations, including the World Health Organization, encourage all mothers to breastfeed, even if they are COVID positive,” said Tarrant, adding the benefits of breastfeeding far outweigh the risk of infecting the infant.
If COVID-19 positive moms take the necessary precautions, such as mask-wearing and hand washing, the risk is very minimal, she said.
“Mothering through breastfeeding is the most natural and effective way of caring for the baby, even in these unusual times.”
The research also found that breastfeeding can reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes.
“Up to 20 per cent of women with gestational diabetes will go on to develop Type 2 diabetes,” said Tarrant. “This is a serious condition where blood sugar levels aren’t properly regulated and can lead to serious consequences later, including stroke and blindness.”
Analysis of data from 15 pregnancy-related studies showed a strong relationship between breastfeeding and improved blood sugar regulation.
“In fact, the longer they continue to breastfeed, the lower their risk for developing Type 2 diabetes,” Tarrant added.
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