Study to explore risks and benefits of breastfeeding during COVID-19

To breastfeed or not to breastfeed? Science has long supported that “breast is best,” but COVID-19 has brought with it new questions related to the benefits and/or potential risks of breastfeeding during this pandemic.

Is the SARS-COV2 virus present in breast milk and could it be transmitted from mom to baby? Could antibodies found in breast milk actually help protect babies from the SARS-COV2 virus?

Researchers at Washington State University are part of a new nationwide study on COVID-19 and infant feeding to help answer these questions. Their work could ultimately help scientists better understand how COVID-19 affects the health and immune responses of mothers and babies and whether infant feeding practices play a role.

“We don’t have the answers right now,” said Courtney Meehan, professor of anthropology in the WSU College of Arts and Sciences who has studied human milk composition and maternal-infant health in populations around the world.

The limited research conducted on this topic so far, she said, has yielded mixed results. Some studies did not find evidence of the virus in human milk, whereas a few found viral RNA in some milk samples but not in others. She cautioned that even if viral RNA is detected in milk, that does not necessarily mean the virus is viable or transmissible.

Meehan noted that the uncertainty around potential viral transmission has led to different policies on maternal-infant separation when moms have tested positive for COVID-19.

We really don’t want to separate moms and babies unless we know the risks outweigh the benefits, and the evidence for that is not there.”

Courtney Meehan, Professor of Anthropology, College of Arts and Sciences, Washington State University

Supported by a $200,000 collaborative grant awarded through the National Science Foundation Rapid Response Research funding mechanism, Meehan’s research team at WSU and researchers at the University of Idaho, University of Washington, and Tulane University are working together on their new nationwide study on COVID-19 and infant feeding.

Their study is actively recruiting women aged 18 and over who have received a positive COVID-19 test result within the past week and have infants up to two years old. The study will follow 50 participants–25 with breastfed babies and 25 with non-breastfed babies–for a period of two months.

Women who enroll in the study will receive a kit that they will use to collect biological samples from themselves and their babies, including milk for those women who are breastfeeding.

They will do this at specified intervals throughout the study. In addition, they will be interviewed by phone about their family’s health, COVID-19 exposures and symptoms, and infant care and feeding practices.

In addition to testing samples for the virus and antibodies, the researchers will compare outcomes between COVID-19 infected moms with breastfed and non-breastfed babies.

“Our study will provide evidence to inform policy recommendations, which will help ease the anxiety that both health care practitioners and moms are feeling due to the current vacuum of information,” Meehan said.

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