“To be honest, I was a little worried,” she said.
Byrdsong, a 36-year-old mother of two living in the Washington, DC area, told BuzzFeed News at the time she was unsure whether the COVID vaccine would affect her ability to donate breast milk – a gap of information this is increasingly becoming a factor for milk banks as more of the American population is vaccinated. A key question for donors and recipients is whether protection against the coronavirus passes through the breast milk of a vaccinated person to an infant. While longer-term, larger-scale studies are needed, early research suggests the answer is yes.
“We don’t have that proof,” said Kim Updegrove, executive director of Mothers’ Milk Bank in Austin. “We assume it’s protective. We assume that this goes with the milk and that is a very good thing. This all leads to a very interesting question from people who are sitting on both sides of the vaccine barrier. “
The uncertainty on the ground over the vaccine has become the “second layer of chaos” of the pandemic for milk banks, Updegrove said. Fifteen months after banks initially addressed panic over the effect COVID-19 could have on people who are breastfeeding or pregnant, there is a growing need for information on whether infants are protected against the virus through breast milk. vaccinated people.
Donations are typically collected by nonprofits that test milk, mix milk from multiple donors into unique batches, and distribute the nutrient-rich bundle product to medical providers for people like Paris Henderson, a 33-year-old mother. whose son was born prematurely. in May. The hospital offered her donor milk when her own milk did not arrive after the early delivery; her body was late and not prepared to produce milk. Henderson did not receive a COVID-19 vaccine, but tested positive for antibodies after defeating the virus.
“I didn’t care if the person was vaccinated or not,” Henderson said of the people who donated the milk his son received. It was more important to her that her baby got the nutrients in the milk, she added.
One of the main reasons for confusion is the lack of solid clinical studies on the effect of COVID-19 vaccines on pregnant or breastfeeding people. As is the norm for most clinical trials, pregnant people have been excluded from COVID-19 vaccine trials. Including them would have meant researchers had to collect data on parents and babies, potentially prolonging the clinical trial process and raising complex ethical questions. According to the CDC, there is little or no information available on the safety and effects of vaccines on breast milk at this time, but specific clinical trials are underway or planned.
“It’s just like another [instance] where women are kind of forgotten, ”said Erin Burgin, a 35-year-old mother of two from the Washington, DC area.
After getting pregnant in 2020 and giving birth a few months ago, Burgin said the lack of information on breastfeeding safety when immunized was “extremely troubling.”
But that is starting to change.
A recent joint study by Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital concluded that vaccinated parents actually pass their antibodies to infants through their breast milk. The study ran from December 2020 to February 2021 and evaluated 131 women of childbearing age, breastfeeding or pregnant and about to receive the Pfizer or Moderna injections. The researchers had two goals in mind: to find out whether their vaccines worked against COVID-19 and, if so, whether the vaccine also offered protection to infants.
But the immunity benefits for the baby don’t last long after withdrawal, Stephanie Gaw, assistant professor at the University of California, San Francisco, told BuzzFeed News. The antibodies cover the baby’s mouth, throat and digestive tract, preventing the virus from infecting the baby’s cells, but researchers don’t know for how long.
Gaw led a small study that determined that Moderna and Pfizer vaccines do not pass into breast milk. The study analyzed the breast milk of seven people at different times after receiving either of the mRNA vaccines. The researchers said the findings reinforced recommendations that breastfeeding people who receive the vaccine should not stop breastfeeding. Gaw added that she saw no harm in mixing the pre- and post-vaccine milk.
While the new findings are reassuring, the results should not change the way milk banks pool their donations, said Gaw and Gray. Gray pointed out that before the pandemic, adults who produce breast milk are typically exposed to a myriad of infections and frequently receive vaccines.
And as the population becomes more immune to COVID-19, these antibodies will simply become another layer of protection that breast milk provides to babies that the formula does not offer. But consistency is important, according to a report from Nature, because babies process antibodies within hours or days. As a result, any layer of protection offered by breast milk only lasts as long as babies are breastfed.
“We have always asked about vaccinations during our screening process, so this is just a new set of information that we need to collect,” said Rebecca Heinrich, Director of Mothers’ Milk Bank. . “We don’t yet know what kind of antibody ‘load’ is transferred, or what kind of immune boosting it might provide, but of course our hope is that the antibodies in donor milk will help protect the donor. infant from all kinds of pathogens, including COVID -19.
Byrdsong, the mother of two living in Washington, said that for people like her, the first step should be to clear up the confusion about whether the antibodies or the vaccine itself are transferred through breast milk.
“I think most mothers who have concerns about the vaccine… their discomfort is that the vaccine itself is given directly to a child versus the antibodies,” Byrdsong said. “Personally, I don’t know of any mother who is opposed to their child receiving antibodies, so I don’t know if this is something they understand, that there is a difference between the two. “
Burgin, who received the Moderna vaccine this spring, said she is currently breastfeeding her 6-month-old baby and gives her 3-year-old a glass of breast milk every week to boost her immunity. Gaw said it was not yet clear how much milk an older child would need to gain immunity or how long that immunity would take.
“I spoke to other moms who said they continued on their breastfeeding journey longer because they had the vaccine and wanted to help some of their older children in their homes. Burgin said. “It’s a huge discussion… and breastmilk is an easy way to give [protection] to your child who cannot yet be vaccinated.
Milk banks typically ask donors if they have received other major vaccines, such as measles, but they do not yet have a standardized method to prove that they have received the COVID-19 vaccine, or if they have received the COVID-19 vaccine. they responded positively and developed antibodies, Updegrove said. However, on average, more than 50% of donors in most states said in their profile that they had received one of the vaccines approved by the FDA, she added.
Experts also remind parents that since milk in banks is pooled by several people, it is not possible to request milk from unvaccinated donors unless the recipient requests it directly from an individual.
“The reason multiple donors are recommended in the same milk pool is that women who breastfeed and express their milk are not the same,” said Updegrove. “They have different diets, they take different vitamins. There is value in mixing several different donors. “
Asked about the typical profile of breastmilk donors, Gray said she hoped to expand research on the vaccine’s effect on breastfeeding people since her study consisted mostly of non-Latin American white women.
Henderson said black parents lacked important information about the health and immunity benefits of breast milk and, in her case where she lives in Vienna, Virginia, determined her ability to receive a donation.
“I think more women in my particular community would breastfeed if they knew they were providing a sense of protection for their child,” said Henderson. “I don’t think the information is there. Breastfeeding consultations and breastfeeding centers, they are not accessible to everyone. We were lucky to have our hospital in a richer region. That’s why we got the donor milk… and they said, “It’s not something that is offered everywhere. We may not have had the chance to have it.
Now that her milk supply has arrived, Henderson has declared that she will “absolutely” donate her milk.
“You could save someone’s life or prevent a baby from getting sick,” Henderson said. “Either way, they’re so sensitive to everything, just that little layer of protection. You don’t really know, but I feel like it reassures a parent. A feeling of comfort. And this is what I come back to. I don’t know if I’m doing everything, but I know at least I’m trying.