We’ve all heard that breastfeeding is good for babies. What’s been less clear in recent months is whether or not breastfeeding moms should receive the relatively new COVID-19 vaccine.
Ann Kellams, MD, a pediatrician and breastfeeding expert, shared some facts about breastfeeding, illness, antibodies, and whether nursing moms should get the shot.
Breastfeeding and the COVID Vaccine
So, should nursing moms be vaccinated against coronavirus? According to Kellams, the answer is a resounding yes.
“The Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine as well as the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology recommend that pregnant and breastfeeding mothers get the vaccine,” Kellams says. “There is data to show that babies born to vaccinated mothers have protective antibodies against the virus. The mother’s milk contains these infection-fighting properties as well — all of which serve to protect the baby.”
Right now, vaccinating breastfeeding moms against COVID is the best, safest way to get immune-boosting antibodies to babies. Those antibodies will help protect the babies from the virus that causes COVID. And it’s not just breastfeeding moms – as more data has become available, it is clear that infants whose mothers have received the vaccine during pregnancy are born with antibodies against the virus. So, getting the vaccine while pregnant will not only help the mother who has a risk of more severe disease and premature birth, but also provide some protection for her baby.
Irène Mathieu, MD, explains that antibodies are transferred through the placenta. If you received the vaccine early on in your pregnancy, your baby will be born with antibodies.
Fear of the Unknown
As a mom-to-be, your senses are heightened about what’s healthy for your baby. The unknowns of a "new" vaccine may cause some hesitancy. Kellams explains that while the mRNA vaccine may be new for broad use in humans, we have data from similar vaccines that don’t show any dangers to expectant moms or babies.
About 100,000 pregnant women have received the vaccine since it’s been available. Comparing these women with others who have not received the vaccine, there was no alarming information for the women or infants. “We have to weigh the risks and benefits and decide what we’re willing to accept. There’s no evidence of risks [from the vaccine] at this moment, but we do know the virus can be harmful to you and your baby,” Mathieu shares.
Having COVID-19 while pregnant is very dangerous. Pregnant women are five times more likely to be admitted to the ICU, and are at higher risk of death from the virus. The babies of moms who contract COVID are more likely to be born prematurely too.
The COVID Vaccine While Trying to Conceive
If you’re thinking about getting pregnant, you may have questioned if this vaccine will affect your fertility. Rochanda Mitchell, DO, shares that the Society of Reproductive Medicine has stated this vaccine has not shown any decrease in fertility at all so far. Mitchell recommends doing your homework and research and talking with your provider to feel confident in your decision to get the vaccine.
Mathieu adds, “If there were an issue, we would notice those who have been sick with the virus having negative impacts on fertility too.” She jokes that our labor and delivery unit has been very busy, and that we haven't seen any evidence of this.
Different Shots and Breast Milk
In the United States, we currently have three different brands of COVID vaccines available to us. Is there one better than the other at producing more antibodies shared through breast milk? Kellams shares while we don’t have a breakdown between the different brands, you should still get whichever one is available to you first. It’s still protection from a serious disease.
Continue to Breastfeed
Are you thinking about weaning your little one? Do what’s best for you and your baby. Kellam shares we don’t know how long the antibodies last. But, if you’re concerned about maintaining your baby's COVID antibodies, then she recommends continuing that nursing relationship with your baby. The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding for up to two years.
Milk Supply Issues & Vaccines
Currently, no data is showing that the vaccine will affect your milk supply. However, after the second shot, you may feel achy or unwell, so you may notice a dip in the amount you produce. It’ll bounce back once you feel better.
Kellams stresses that every drop of breast milk is valuable for baby and not to worry about the volume if you experience a temporary dip in your supply.
Breastfeeding While Sick
If mom is sick, should she still breastfeed the baby? Kellams says yes, in most situations, and that includes if mom has the coronavirus.
“In fact, if mom is sick with an infection, we want the baby to get her milk right then and there with antibodies against the same bug,” she says. “Of course, mom will need to make sure she is keeping herself hydrated. If she is too sick to breastfeed, pumping her milk might be an option to keep up her supply and to help make sure the baby gets her milk.”
- Of course, this doesn’t include certain other infections such as HIV, which can be transmitted through breast milk. If in doubt, always ask your primary care provider or baby’s pediatrician.
- Most medications are safe while breastfeeding, but you should always make sure your doctor or pharmacist knows you’re breastfeeding before starting any medicines.
Interested in breastfeeding?
Learn more from the UVA Breastfeeding Program.
Breast Milk Contents Adjust When Mom or Baby is Sick
Some nursing moms say their breast milk seems to change color or consistency when baby or mom is sick. According to Kellams, breast milk does change when mom or baby is sick.
“Breast milk contains antibodies to infectious ‘threats’ that are in the environment that the baby shares with the mother. If there are harmful bacteria or viruses, for example, or if the baby is sick, the mother’s body will produce antibodies and protective factors for those specific bugs. The milk will have higher concentrations of these infection-fighting substances,” explained Kellams.
“If mom is sick, her body will make substances to help protect the baby. If baby is sick, mom’s body will make substances to help prevent more severe infection and to help them recover and heal.”
Breast Milk Color Can Vary
Breastfeeding moms, especially moms who pump their breast milk, know the milk can come in shades of white, cream, and yellow. Sometimes it even seems to have a bit of a blue tint. Why is breast milk sometimes different colors?
Kellams says these changes in color are natural and differ from person to person depending on the time of day and the developmental stage of the baby. “Bottom line — all of it is nutritious and protective for babies and good for the person making the milk as well!” added Kellams.
That “Liquid Gold”
Sometimes, for various reasons, moms aren’t able or choose not to breastfeed. But for those who do, the benefits for moms as well as for babies are incredible.
“Breast milk contains antiviral, antifungal, antibacterial, and even cancer-fighting substances. These are things that cannot be put into a can,” Kellams said. “It is not just nutrition. It is personalized protection, and it is a way to give babies the very best start for optimal brain growth and development!”