- Parents share breast milk with COVID-19 antibodies in an attempt to protect their children.
- It is unclear how protective the milk is, and sharing outside the milk bank can be risky.
- Breastfeeding mothers who give milk rich in antibodies are harmless, but it may not be worth it.
- Visit the Insider homepage for more stories.
Some parents who want to protect their children from COVID-19 turn to an unconventional elixir: breast milk that contains antibodies to COVID-19.
Some who can’t or can no longer breastfeed ask for it from moms in their communities or online, and other breastfeeding women cover it up in their older children’s meals, Kevin Dugan of Intelligence reported.
Research has shown that vaccinated and previously infected mothers develop COVID-19 protective antibodies in breast milk.
But it is not clear how effective they are in preventing disease in babies, how much milk offers protection, and how long that protection would last. Sharing breast milk outside the milk bank can also be risky, and most children do not become infected with COVID-19 as easily as younger and older adults, nor do they get sick often.
But some parents say that in the absence of a vaccine approved for children, the use of breast milk poses a risk worth taking. “If there’s a way I can do something that offers a level of protection to my child, I’d love to give it a try,” Courtney Carson, the mother of a four-month-old Brooklyn child Dugan spoke to, told Good Morning America.
What we know about COVID-19 antibodies in breast milk
At the start of the pandemic, research showed that mothers who had survived COVID-19 could leak protective antibodies in the womb and through breast milk.
Study author Rebecca Powell told Insider that her recent research, which has yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, found that protection appears to last up to 10 months, the longest her team has been able to track previously infected moms.
“We’re finding that these antibodies are really very durable over time, which is great,” said Powell, an assistant professor of medicine and infectious diseases at Icahn School of Medicine in Mount Sinai.
It encourages everyone, including breastfeeding people who have survived COVID-19, to get vaccinated. Not only is it safer than taking COVID-19, recent studies have shown that pregnant women taking the COVID-19 vaccine also transmit antibodies to their baby in the womb and through breast milk, potentially protecting newborns from the virus when they are most vulnerable.
But much remains to be learned about how strong and long-lasting protection against COVID-19 is generated by the vaccine in babies, as well as whether one vaccine is better for breastfeeding mothers than others. “If there was an interest in money and money for research, we could always design vaccines with breastfeeding in mind,” Powell said.
Sharing milk outside the milk bank carries risks
The potential benefits of any type of breast milk with antibodies now have some parents who cannot or can no longer breastfeed by looking for friends, neighbors, and strangers online. Carson, a mom in which intelligence and GMAs were involved, is one of them. She received three offers after inquiring about it on her parents ’Brooklyn Facebook app.
But the FDA discourages the sharing of breast milk in this way (as opposed to going through a milk bank) because it can carry infectious diseases, drugs, environmental contaminants and drug metabolites. In an effort to evaluate more than 100 breast milk samples sold online before the pandemic, scientists found that most have disease-causing bacteria, and some so much that they resemble sewage water.
Shared breast milk can also be treated inappropriately. “The risks definitely outweigh any potential benefits,” ABC News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton told GMA.
Powell told Insider if you’re going to ask for or share breast milk, it’s safest to do so with someone you know very well. “Sharing milk can be a really great thing, but you have to know the risks and the context,” she said. “Just getting anonymous is probably not the way to go.”
Some lactating women give older children breast milk with COVID-19 antibodies
Some mothers with COVID-19 antibody-rich breast milk question its value in their own families.
Powell said she received emails from breastfeeding moms wondering if they should wait longer to wean babies or pump antibody-filled milk to add eggs and cups to older babies.
“It took a pandemic for people to think and understand [that] there have always been very good things in your milk, ”said Powell, who is currently breastfeeding her three-year-old herself.
There is no risk of breastfeeding older children, she said, but it is unclear whether this would offer greater protection against COVID-19 because children’s diets are more varied than infants. The amount is, therefore, a limiting factor, and the peace of mind and time of the parents are also important.
“If it’s easy to do and make you happy,” Powell said, “there’s no harm.” On the other hand, no one should feel pressured to pump for their older children or try to elbow again. “There’s not enough data to say you absolutely should do that,” she said. “For starters, there’s enough pressure on moms.”