Coronavirus (Covid-19)

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Supporting mothers and babies during the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak

The Unicef UK Baby Friendly Initiative has received a number of queries regarding best practice for infant feeding during the Covid-19 outbreak. We suggest that all practitioners follow latest updates from the UK governments and the World Health Organization (WHO) as these could change as more information becomes available.

The Unicef UK Baby Friendly Initiative has produced a series of statements on infant feeding, infant feeding on neonatal units and supporting Baby Friendly assessments during the Covid-19 outbreak. In addition, we have produced a quick reference guide for health professionals on supporting mothers to maximise the amount of breastmilk they are able to give or to re-lactate if they have stopped breastfeeding and wish to re-start. We are also releasing a series of guidance sheets to support health services to provide remote care and a section on frequently asked questions – see below.  This page will be updated as more information becomes available.

Infant feeding during Covid-19 outbreak: statement

Updated 02 April 2020
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Infant feeding on neonatal units during Covid-19 outbreak: statement

Updated 02 April 2020
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Guidance on providing care 

A range of Baby Friendly resources on infant feeding and supporting close and loving relationships can be found at: Unicef UK Baby Friendly Initiative

Telephone support for parents: National Breastfeeding Helpline 0300 100 0212 from 9:30am to 9:30pm, 7 days a week. Live online support via web chat.

Information on infant formula can be found at: First Steps Nutrition Trust

Supporting Baby Friendly assessments: statement

30 March 2020
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Guidance sheet 1: Planning a virtual conversation

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Guidance sheet 2: Antenatal conversations

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Guidance sheet 3: Postnatal conversations

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Resources to support you 

The maximising breastmilk reference guide and bottle feeding assessment tool can be used with the above guidance documents to help provide compassionate and effective conversations with mothers during this difficult time.

Maximising breastmilk and supporting re-lactation during Covid-19

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Bottle feeding assessment tool

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FAQs - updated as new evidence emerges

1. What do midwives/health visitors need to discuss with pregnant mothers during the Covid-19 outbreak?

This can be an anxious time for pregnant mothers who may be worried about the wellbeing of their baby, themselves and their family. Therefore, mothers may appreciate someone to talk to who will listen to their concerns. All mothers should have the opportunity for an antenatal discussion about the value of breastmilk (particularly during the Covid-19 outbreak), getting breastfeeding off to the best start (see also meeting baby for the first time) and the importance of skin-to-skin contact. In addition, it is important to discuss with the mother how she can get to know her baby through closeness, comfort and connection and by taking the time to talk, sing and respond to baby’s movements. This can also reduce stress and will be good for the baby’s development.

2. Can women with Covid-19 breastfeed?

Yes. There is a wealth of evidence that breastfeeding reduces the risk of babies developing infectious diseases. There are numerous live constituents in human milk, including immunoglobulins, antiviral factors, cytokines and leucocytes that help to destroy harmful pathogens and boost the baby’s immune system. There is currently no evidence that Covid-19 can be passed to the baby through breastfeeding. Considering the protection that human milk and breastfeeding offers the baby and the minimal role it plays in the transmission of other respiratory viruses, it seems sensible to do all we can to continue to promote, protect and support breastfeeding. To facilitate breastfeeding, mothers and babies should be enabled to stay together as much as possible, to have skin-to-skin contact, to feed their baby responsively and to have access to ongoing support when this is needed. See question 4 below.

3. Can parents touch and hold their newborn baby if they have Covid-19?

Yes, touch, comfort and communication are vital for the baby’s wellbeing and development. Good hygiene habits are important and will keep the risks to baby as low as possible (see question 4 below). It is also useful to refer to the practical information provided by the UK governments and the World Health Organization (WHO).

4. What practical information do parents need if they have Covid-19 and are caring for their baby?

If parents/carers are infected, take precautions to limit the spread of Covid-19 to the baby by:

  • Washing hands thoroughly before and after contact with the baby
  • Routinely cleaning and disinfecting any surfaces touched
  • Cleaning any infant feeding equipment, including breast pumps, thoroughly before and after use
  • Practicing respiratory hygiene, including during feeding, for example by avoiding coughing or sneezing on the baby and by wearing a face mask or suitable alternative if available
  • If a breastfeeding mother is feeling unwell, continuing breastfeeding rather than expressing may be easier and less stressful during this time. Alternatively, she may prefer for someone who is well to feed expressed breastmilk to the baby.
  • If a baby is being bottle fed with formula or expressed milk, wash equipment in hot, soapy water and sterilise carefully before each use
  • If the mother is too unwell to breastfeed or express breastmilk, she may be supported to  once well enough. Consider using donor milk if available and applicable.

5. What can a mother do if she has Covid-19 but is too unwell to breastfeed?

This mother should be supported to safely provide her baby with breastmilk in a way that is possible, available and acceptable to her. Consider breastmilk expression by hand/pump and give via a suitable alternative method (see responsive and paced bottle feeding). Maximising breastmilk is important during this time. When the mother is feeling better, encourage skin-to-skin contact and return to full breastfeeding where possible.

6. If a mother has stopped breastfeeding and wishes to re-lactate, can this be done?

Yes. Re-lactation is generally possible and worth trying even if a return to full breastfeeding is not always achievable. Help can be found on the Unicef UK Baby Friendly guide to maximising breastmilk and supporting re-lactation.

7. Is it safe to use donor breastmilk during the Covid-19 outbreak?

Donor breastmilk that has been through a screening and pasteurisation process from a UK breastmilk bank can be used.  Mother’s own milk should always be the first choice as this is responsive to her and her baby’s environment. Speak to your local breastmilk bank to ensure that screening and pasteurisation processes comply with the National Institute of Clinical Excellence [CG93] and the  European Milk Banking Association Covid-19 guidelines. See also UKAMB and Hearts Milk Bank.

8. Is sharing breastmilk safe during the Covid-19 outbreak?

Informal breastmilk sharing is not recommended. Although the virus has not been detected in breastmilk, it can stay on the surface of containers and can also be passed via close contact with a person who may not be aware they have any symptoms.

9. Should mothers and babies be separated during the Covid-19 outbreak?

Whether or not the mother or her baby has suspected, probable or confirmed Covid-19, she should be enabled to remain with her baby, practice skin-to-skin contact and room-in throughout the day and night, especially after birth and during the establishment of breastfeeding. See WHO guidance.

10. Can mothers still express breastmilk for a baby on the neonatal unit?

Yes. Breastmilk is essential for sick and preterm babies as it significantly reduces the risk of serious complications both in the short and long term. Mother’s own milk should always be the first choice as this is responsive to her and her baby’s environment (particularly important during Covid-19). Mother should be supported to express as soon as possible after birth (ideally within 2 hours) and thereafter at least 8-10 times in 24 hours, including at night.

11. Can my organisation distribute infant formula to families who cannot access first stage infant milk?

During the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak there has been concern that parents cannot always access  infant formula in the shops because of low stocks. There is also concern that families who are self-isolating may struggle to obtain infant formula and that the financial situation of some families is deteriorating rapidly, with the benefits system taking time to catch up. Some health services have considered obtaining supplies of infant formula and distributing this to families in need. Article 6.6 and 6.7 of the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes cover this and state that supplying infant formula is acceptable providing that the supplies are continued as long as the infants concerned need them. This means that services cannot simply supply one or two tins of formula and then leave the family without any further access to formula. Supplies must continue until the family are able to access formula in the normal way, e.g. once their benefits arrive and/or the stocks in shops improve and/or they come out of isolation – only then is it acceptable to cease provision. Normal care and safeguarding considerations still apply. Obviously, there should be no free samples from the manufacturers and nothing that could be interpreted as a sales inducement. Infant formula must be supplied only for babies that are already being formula fed.