Breastfeeding offers many health benefits to mothers and babies, and this remains true during the COVID-19 pandemic. August is National Breastfeeding Awareness Month, and with COVID-19 again surging in Dallas County, specialists at Parkland Health & Hospital System say it’s vital to educate pregnant women and new moms about ways to give their infants the healthiest possible start in life by breastfeeding – and by getting vaccinated.
“I strongly recommend the COVID vaccine to our pregnant and lactating patients,” said Emily Adhikari, MD, Medical Director of Perinatal Infectious Diseases at Parkland and Maternal-Fetal Medicine specialist at UT Southwestern Medical Center. “The risks of severe complications from COVID for pregnant women are high and can have devastating impacts on their baby. Data demonstrate vaccines are safe for pregnant women in all trimesters of pregnancy, safe for women who want to become pregnant, and in addition, vaccinated mothers pass COVID-19 antibodies to their breastfeeding babies which may help protect them from COVID infection.”
With more than 12,000 newborns delivered at Parkland in 2020, lactation consultants at the health system provide education and support for thousands of women who choose to breastfeed.
“Breastfeeding is good for moms and for babies,” said Valencia Moore, RN, Lactation Consultant Supervisor. “Breast milk provides the optimal nutrition for babies, is easily digested and is readily available – and it’s also free,” Moore said. “As your baby grows, your breast milk will change to meet his or her nutritional needs. Breastfeeding can also help protect you and your baby against some short- and long-term diseases.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend exclusive breastfeeding for infants for 6 months and continued breastfeeding as solid foods are introduced until the child is 1 year or older.
Yahaira Gallardo-Martinez, 25, of Dallas, gave birth to a baby girl on August 6 at Parkland. She breastfed her two older children for three months each following birth and plans to breastfeed this baby even longer. She got vaccinated for COVID-19 in January on the advice of her physician, has followed all CDC COVID guidelines and said that she and her family have not gotten infected.
“I was unsure about the vaccine at first, but I have kids and I want to protect them from COVID. What parent doesn’t get worried?” she said. “My boy gets sick often and I wouldn’t want him to catch COVID. Getting vaccinated helps protect all of us.”
Courtney Johnson of Dallas, 37, is a nurse practitioner at Parkland, currently on maternity leave with her infant son who was born on May 28 at Parkland.
“Breastfeeding is the best thing you can give your baby. It’s priceless,” Johnson said. “Not only does it benefit the baby but also the mom.”
Breastfed babies have a lower risk of:
- Type 1 diabetes
- Severe lower respiratory disease
- Ear infections
- Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
- Gastrointestinal infections (diarrhea/vomiting)
Mothers who breastfeed have a lower risk of:
- Breast cancer
- Ovarian cancer
- Type 2 diabetes
- High blood pressure
And, according to Moore, breastfeeding also promotes faster weight loss after birth, stimulates the uterus to contract and return to normal size and lowers risk of postpartum depression, postpartum bleeding and anemia.
Data have shown that COVID-19 infection puts pregnant people at increased risk of severe complications and even death; yet only about 22% of pregnant individuals have received one or more doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the CDC. On Aug. 11 the CDC strengthened its recommendation, stating” COVID-19 vaccination is recommended for all people 12 years and older, including people who are pregnant, breastfeeding, trying to get pregnant now, or might become pregnant in the future. Evidence about the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccination during pregnancy has been growing. These data suggest that the benefits of receiving a COVID-19 vaccine outweigh any known or potential risks of vaccination during pregnancy," the CDC adds in the updated guidance on its website.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine (SMFM), the two leading organizations representing specialists in obstetric care, recommend that all pregnant individuals be vaccinated against COVID-19, citing evidence demonstrating the safe use of the COVID-19 vaccines during pregnancy from tens of thousands of reporting individuals over the last several months, as well as the current low vaccination rates and concerning increase in cases.
“I decided to get vaccinated because a lot of people were getting infected with COVID, including pregnant women,” Johnson said. “I didn’t want to risk that. The benefits outweighed the risk. I was afraid to catch COVID and I feel like I have some protection now, especially with the new delta variant.”
The ACOG adds, “Recent data have shown that more than 95% of those who are hospitalized and/or dying from COVID-19 are those who have remained unvaccinated. Pregnant individuals who have decided to wait until after delivery to be vaccinated may be inadvertently exposing themselves to an increased risk of severe illness or death. Those who have recently delivered and were not vaccinated during pregnancy are also strongly encouraged to get vaccinated as soon as possible.”
That’s a sentiment echoed by Dr. Adhikari, Moore and other experts at Parkland. “Breastfeeding and vaccination are two of the best decisions you can make for yourself and your baby,” Moore said.
For more information, please visit www.parklandhospital.com