COVID-19, hot weather shouldn’t prevent exclusive breastfeeding

Evidence is overwhelmingly in support of breastfeeding. Skin-to-skin contact and early, exclusive breastfeeding helps baby to thrive. But mothers are worried if breastfeeding during the COVID-19 pandemic is safe. They want to give water to quench their newborn thirst. So, do pregnant women really need to be worried that COVID-19 can be transmitted through breast milk and breastfeeding? Will the newborn also need to drink water during the hot weather?

Breastfeeding is a cost-effective way of feeding an infant, providing the best nourishment for a child at a small nutrient cost to the mother. During breastfeeding, beneficial hormones are released into the mother’s body and the maternal bond can be strengthened. The woman’s ability to produce all of the nutrients that her child needs can provide her with a sense of confidence.

There is no reason to discontinue breastfeeding in the wake of COVID-19.  Professor Beatrice Ogunba, a Nutritionist specialising in Maternal and Child Nutrition at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun State said for a breastfeeding mother, there should not be any fear because there is scientific evidence to suggest that babies can contract COVID-19 through breastfeeding.

Professor Ogunba spoke at a World Breastfeeding week webinar, hosted by the Federal Ministry of health in collaboration with FHI360 with the theme “Support Breastfeeding for a Healthier Planet.”

According to her, babies, irrespective of the mother’s COVID-19 status should feed on breast milk because it helps to strengthen the baby’s immune system against infectious diseases.

“There is no data to conclude the vertical transmission of COVID-19 through breastfeeding.  Mothers only need to follow the WHO’s breastfeeding protocol. They need to wash hands with soap and water for 20 seconds and make sure to disinfect all surfaces they touch regularly. And if the water is not available regularly, they can use hand sanitisers.

“And in the case of a mother infected with COVID-19, the mother should still follow WHO’s breastfeeding protocol. But if the mother is too sick to breastfeed, she can express her milk with a washed hand or a breast milk pump for her baby.”

Dr Uche Ralph-Opara, Lagos State Team Lead, FHI360 Alive & Thrive Project, quoted the findings of the Alive and Thrive Project baseline survey in Lagos and Kaduna states that indicated hot weather as a key reason why infants under the age of six months are given water in addition to breast milk.

According to her, because of the heat and dry weather, they believe water had to be added to quench the child’s thirst just the same way adults will need to drink water. They expect that babies too will get thirsty and will also require water in addition to breast milk.

She added, “when you say exclusive breastfeeding, it means no water in the first six months of birth regardless of the weather condition. Whether the weather is hot or dry, the baby needs absolutely no water.

“The breast milk has more than enough water. What is the point when 80 per cent of breast milk is water? You will trip the baby into malnutrition or even cause all manner of diarrheal disease in that child. Breast milk is natures’ gift to us. It is a very ecologically friendly, readily available, affordable and most convenient food for a baby. We all need to embrace this. This is the best thing for us to do.”

Unfortunately, the perception that breastfeeding is difficult which started in medium and high-income countries had crept into many homes in low income countries, said Dr Shittu Abdu-Aguye, Deputy project director, Breakthrough Action, Nigeria (BA-N).

BAN is implementing an integrated social and behaviour change interventions in 5 states in Nigeria, Oyo State inclusive, to increase the practices of priority health behaviours in such issues as early initiation of breastfeeding and exclusive breastfeeding of babies less than 6 months through television and radio drama programming.

Dr Abdu-Aguye said barriers to early initiation of breastfeeding and exclusive breastfeeding of babies less than six months that exists at the family and community levels can be addressed using the mass media platform.

“A lot of myths still goes on which we also try to address, highlight best practices and champions for breastfeeding to be role models for other as well as promote spousal support for women who are breastfeeding,” he added.

Dr Abdu-Aguye, however, added that the media can be helpful in promoting policies on maternal leave policy of 6 months, since it is yet to be adopted by many states to ensure women can breastfeed.

 

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