Coronavirus: Mums with COVID-19 can safely breastfeed and stay with their babies, new study suggests

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images 

Babies born to women with coronavirus do not need to be separated from their mothers and can be breastfed, a new study has found.

The study followed 101 newborns born to mums in New York who either had or were suspected of having the virus and found no clinical evidence of transmission, despite the babies staying with and being breastfed by their mothers.

Published in JAMA Pediatrics, it is the most comprehensive study on mother to newborn transmission to date and offers hope to pregnant women that they won't miss out on that special bonding time with their newborn.

Many hospitals follow guidelines that COVID-19 positive mums be separated from their babies, that breastfeeding be avoided and newborns be bathed shortly after birth. 

However the study found that strict hygiene measures followed by the women, such as frequent hand washing, wearing masks and thoroughly cleaning their breasts with soap and water before each feed were effective in stopping the spread. Babies were also placed in protective bassinets six feet from their mums while resting. 

Of the 101 babies followed over a 25 day period between March to April, just two returned 'indeterminate test results', indicating they may have contracted a low viral load, although both showed no symptoms and remained healthy.

The research was undertaken at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital. Senior author of the paper, Cynthia Gyamfi-Bannerman, said the findings showed women could safely bond with their baby. 

"Our findings should reassure expectant mothers with COVID-19 that basic infection-control measures during and after childbirth—such as wearing a mask and engaging in breast and hand hygiene when holding or breastfeeding a baby—protected newborns from infection in this series," Ms Gyamfi-Bannerman said in a statement on the study

Researchers continued to promote pre-pandemic bonding, saying that avoiding these and following separation guidelines could do more harm than good. Bathing infants too early, she said, could interfere with both bonding and breastfeeding. 

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"During the pandemic, we continued to do what we normally do to promote bonding and development in healthy newborns, while taking a few extra precautions to minimise the risk of exposure to the virus," she added. 

The benefits of skin to skin contact - where the baby is placed directly on a mum or dad's chest without any clothing barriers, is well established and goes beyond bonding, as midwife Lisa Berson told Essential Baby.

"Most people think of skin to skin as a way of bonding with the baby. But there are lots of other reasons to do it," Ms Berson said. 

"Studies have shown that skin to skin can assist in increasing or maintaining a baby's temperature following the birth, or if the baby is receiving treatment in the intensive care unit of the hospital."

According to the Royal Children's Hospital Melbourne's guidelines, skin to skin contact also promotes longer periods of quiet sleep, improves a baby's ability to self-regulate, helps in establishing breastfeeding, reduces stress and crying and increases physiological stability, as well as enhancing parent-infant attachment. 

The risk of mothers passing the virus onto babies in utero is considered low and in Australia, keeping mother and baby together in hospital, where possible, is considered best practice.