Want to Take the Pressure Off Breastfeeding Moms Like Me? Get Vaccinated

Many moms are extending their breastfeeding goals or seeking donor milk to give their babies coveted protection from COVID-19. While we're still learning about immunity through breast milk, the pressure should not fall on individual mothers to protect their newborns—all eligible Americans should get vaccinated so we reach herd immunity for those who cannot get the shot.

An image of a mother breastfeeding her baby.
Photo: Getty Images.

Three weeks after giving birth I was ready to throw in the towel on breastfeeding. My son was able to latch from the start, but he just wasn't taking in enough milk. After almost an hour on the breast, my newborn would still beg for a bottle so we would supplement with formula. Before I became a parent, I wholeheartedly believed in the "fed is best" mentality, and I still do.

But it feels different when it's your own experience. I thought I should be able to nurse—sure it's hard, but good moms do hard things for their babies, right? But the hour-long feeding sessions were getting to be too much for me. Not to mention nursing was causing my uterus to contract and I was bleeding a lot—enough to send me to the ER for overnight monitoring (Let's talk more about what postpartum really looks like, shall we?). My family and friends supported my decision to quit, but in the back of my mind, there was one thing keeping me from parting with the pump: COVID-19.

While the vaccine wasn't available when I first decided to continue pumping to give my son a few bottles of breast milk a day, I knew that its release was on the horizon and pharmaceutical companies were working fast. I figured if I could just keep giving him my milk until I got the vaccine, maybe I would pass along some antibodies to help protect him from the global pandemic.

After joining a few breastfeeding Facebook groups and talking to friends, I soon realized I was not the only one thinking this way. My friend with a baby the same age as mine told me she was going to keep nursing until she was two weeks past her second dose of Pfizer. My co-worker, who was vaccinated during her second pregnancy, says she's considering giving some of her breast milk to her toddler after her baby is born later this month. Some moms on Facebook are even discussing relactation, the practice of triggering milk production after you already weaned, to try to give their babies the antibodies. Others are seeking out milk donors.

"I have seen an increase in informal milk sharing—moms who have been vaccinated and/or recently having COVID-19 infection sharing their breast milk to pass on antibodies to others' babies," says Jessica Madden, M.D., IBCLC, medical director at Aeroflow Breastpumps.

What We Know About Antibody Transfer in Breast Milk

While many new moms feel pressure and shame around their breastfeeding decisions, this phenomenon was even more intense during the global pandemic. We want to do what's best for our babies, and for many of us that means doing whatever it takes to get our babies the COVID-19 antibodies. The facts about antibody transfer through breast milk and subsequent immunity are still being researched, but studies indicate that breastfeeding offers some protection to babies, particularly if their breastfeeding parent has been fully vaccinated.

Antibodies have been found in the breast milk of people who were infected with COVID-19 and/or received the vaccination. An April 2021 study of 84 vaccinated breastfeeding mothers from Israel in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that more than 90 percent had COVID-19 IgG antibodies in their breast milk one-month post-vaccination, says Dr. Madden. But it's still unknown how much milk needs to be ingested for the COVID-19 IgA and IgG antibodies to pass from the mother to the baby, adds Dr. Madden. We also don't know how long any possible immunity will last in the baby.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), "Recent reports have shown that breastfeeding people who have received mRNA COVID-19 vaccines have antibodies in their breastmilk, which could help protect their babies. More data are needed to determine what level of protection these antibodies may provide to the baby."

It Takes a Village

It's easy to see how moms feel this pressure to keep breastfeeding to protect their baby from COVID-19, but there could be another solution: herd immunity.

"Even if you are not breastfeeding, getting vaccinated can play a big role in protecting your baby from getting the virus," says Dr. Madden. "It is not necessary to go to heroic measures to relactate or obtain breast milk from vaccinated family members or friends."

Still, protecting those who cannot receive the vaccine, including newborns and babies, should not fall exclusively onto the parents—it needs to be a community effort. All individuals 5 and up have free access to the COVID-19 vaccine. Vaccination for younger children is still being tested but should be available in the coming months. As inoculation numbers rise, we welcome the gradual return to normal life and enhanced protection for babies and others who can't get vaccinated.

"Once we have reached herd immunity, there will be a marked decrease in community spread of COVID-19, which will lead to a much lower risk of transmission within households," says Dr. Madden. "Most newborn viral infections are from other family members [such as] older school-aged siblings."

A Glimmer of Hope

When I reached four weeks past my second dose of Moderna, I was down to two short pumps a day and felt very ready to fully wean. However, I couldn't help but wonder if my 5-month-old had any protection. Am I being selfish for not pumping for longer?

With vaccine trials still in the works for babies as young as 6 months old, it's unknown when it will be safe for him to be vaccinated. Without the ability to have him wear a mask, my son hasn't been inside a store or restaurant and we only spend time indoors with people in our bubble—who are now all fully vaccinated. I'm watching with hope as the vaccine numbers in my state rise, praying herd immunity will be achieved to keep my baby protected. But still, too many eligible adults refuse the shot based on false information and unfounded concerns. Sadly, the pressure to protect my baby from a pandemic feels like it's solely on me and my breasts.

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