Breastfeeding during the COVID-19 pandemic

Guiding mothers to breastfeed safely amid COVID-19

By Sellina Kainja
Verita breastfeeding her baby
UNICEF Malawi/2020/Eldson Chagara
02 December 2020

Breastfeeding, initiated within the first hour of birth, provided exclusively for six months, and continued up to two years or beyond, with the provision of safe and appropriate complementary foods, is one of the most powerful practices for promoting child survival and wellbeing

But the advent of COVID-19 is proving to be stressful for breastfeeding mothers who are concerned about their baby's health as they muse over the dangers of spreading the virus to their babies in the event of infection.

 ‘’Breast milk is the best source of nutrition for infants,” says UNICEF nutrition specialist Nerisa Pilime. “Mothers with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 can breastfeed safely with appropriate hygiene precautions. These include practicing respiratory hygiene during feeding, wearing a mask; washing hands before and after touching your baby; and routinely clean and disinfect surfaces you have touched.’’

Through public awareness messages, including 3-2-1 mobile-based messages on Airtel,  UNICEF and FAO in collaboration with the Malawi Government, are working together with cluster leaders in the Afikepo project to educate breastfeeding mothers to continue breastfeeding their babies during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Afikepo project is being implemented with funding from the European Union (EU).  

Health surveillance assistant’s (HSA) like Bright Sumaili play a crucial role in making sure women in his area are being reached with adequate breastfeeding advice. He works at Chinguluwe Health Centre in Salima district and has been sensitizing them on the need to observe hygiene practices while they are breastfeeding including in the context of COVID-19

HSA Bright Sumaili sits outside an Afikepo beneficiaries before commencing a counselling session
UNICEF Malawi/2020/Eldson Chagara
HSA Bright Sumaili sits outside an Afikepo beneficiaries home before commencing a counselling session

 “Since the first case of COVID-19 was recorded in Malawi, there has been a tremendous change of behaviour and attitudes towards the disease. More and more people now understand the need to maintain good hygiene, especially mothers who are breastfeeding,” Sumaili explains.

Mothers are told to adhere to the three Ws—wear a mask during feeding if they have tested positive for COVID-19, wash hands with soap at all times and wipe and disinfect surfaces regularly.

“When they are coughing or sneezing, we advise them to ensure they have a face mask on or use a cloth to cough on. We do not encourage them to cough into the elbow because the baby is usually held on the elbow. We strongly advise mothers with babies to avoid public gatherings but, where that is not a possibility, they should observe physical distancing,” he describes.

Dressed in his blue health worker uniform, Sumaili adds that in cases where the mother gets infected with COVID-19 and is unable to breastfeed, they are advised to express breastmilk into a clean cup.

“Since we started sensitising them on COVID-19 preventive measures, mothers now understand the measures they need to take to prevent the spread of the virus. We work with chiefs and Afikepo programme cluster groups to ensure that the messages reach far and wide. I can safely say that these messages have reached almost every mother who is breastfeeding in my area,” Sumaili says.

Verita Tengani, a mother of an eight-month-old baby, was one of the many mothers worried about breastfeeding in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, with Sumaili’s advice and through Afikepo public awareness campaigns, she now understands that she needs to take precautionary measures to prevent and protect herself and the baby.

“The health worker has advised me to always wash hands with soap before preparing food for the baby, after changing nappies, after visiting the toilet. I am thankful to Mr. Sumaili. He doesn’t get tired of visiting us to make sure that we are following all the measures and he is always patient with us,” Verita explains.