The worst has happened this week and my whole family has been struck down with covid after the baby brought it home as an unwanted ‘welcome to childcare’ gift.
It feels existentially strange to be experiencing something that we have been anxious about for so long. Looking back over the last two years I think about all the invitations turned down, the playdates postponed, the travels cancelled and the family and friends we’ve avoided seeing.
I also think about the impact it’s had on my pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding journey with my second child. I gave birth during the pandemic. I also gave birth in our car outside the hospital (one to tell the grandkids!) and although the two things might not be obviously linked, I do think my birth story was a direct result of pandemic logistics and anxieties.
My main concern leading up to my due date was what we were going to do with my eldest son, who was three at the time. Travel restrictions meant that grandparents and any family or friends were unable to be with us and we had been so isolated during my pregnancy (pre vaccines) that my son had barely spent any time with anyone other than us.
I ended up labouring at home pretty much alone with the ‘Freya’ app, which I used to help me control my breathing through each contraction. If I hadn’t had previous experience of my first son needing intensive care, I would have explored having a home birth, but as I felt I needed the security of a hospital, I instead opted to have midwife support so I could stay at home until she felt it was time to go to the hospital. This happened sooner than expected and I found myself in a soap-opera-like dash: my partner driving the car, my midwife next to him giving instructions and calling the hospital to announce our arrival while I, feeling utterly abandoned in the back seat, screamed at them that I needed to push and was anyone bloody listening!
A slightly dramatic entrance to the world for sure, but in terms of breastfeeding, it was utterly uncomplicated. Once ensconced in the warmth of the hospital (it was a bit chilly giving birth in a car on an April night!), my baby latched on and never looked back. No real chance of visitors or anywhere to go meant that we had all the time in the world to establish breastfeeding and no pressure to ‘get him on a bottle’ or any of the other tropes that can derail an emerging breastfeeding relationship.
I appreciate it isn’t my first rodeo and I know far more than I ever did whilst feeding my first child, but I also don’t think that this is an uncommon pandemic experience based on anecdotal evidence from my lovely Instagram community. Although there were those who found it much tougher to access support due to many centres and services being closed, most commenters ultimately found it to have been a largely positive experience for a whole host of reasons. They cited the fact that not feeling pressured to go anywhere or see anyone meant that time and energy could be invested in getting breastfeeding off to a good start; there was time to be responsive to their baby so they could really observe what their needs were; there was time to try out different positions, research when something wasn’t working and empower themselves to advocate for what they needed if they did require external support.
Although there were those who found it much tougher to access support due to many centres and services being closed, most commenters ultimately found it to have been a largely positive experience for a whole host of reasons.
Where I live in Switzerland, the positive impact of covid restrictions in hospitals (here partners were allowed during labour and for visits but no one else), has meant some hospitals are considering permanently changing their regulations. The number of mothers breastfeeding babies has risen sharply due, an article states, to less stress because of reduced visitors. One mother stated: “I think that these quiet moments are also important for entering breastfeeding – we can breastfeed when the baby needs it and not when there is no one to visit us.”
Of course, if breastfeeding difficulties are experienced, essential services being closed or stretched may have ended some women’s journeys prematurely. For babies with tongue ties, especially, it has sometimes been a frustrating and lonely experience and for every woman who has revelled in the opportunity to hunker down and get to grips with breastfeeding there will be those for whom the lack of support and feelings of isolation will have permanently affected the way they feed their babies.
One of the more positive outcomes however, is that breastfeeding through a pandemic has meant that over 80% of the women who commented on my story poll have ended up feeding for longer than they anticipated. This has been an active choice and for some this is due to being able to work (and boob!) from home without any pressure to pump or alter their responsive approach to breastfeeding. For others, their motivation is the desire to protect their babies with vital antibodies should they become ill.
The majority of responders felt that breastfeeding through a potential covid infection would help give their children some protection and recent studies suggest that their instincts have evidential basis. There are now a number of studies that suggest that vaccinated women can pass Covid-19 antibodies to breastfed infants potentially giving them passive immunity against the coronavirus. This seems to occur regardless of age and might be one reason why a number of women have even started to explore the idea of relactation after their child has previously weaned from breastfeeding.
The majority of responders felt that breastfeeding through a potential covid infection would help give their children some protection and recent studies suggest that their instincts have evidential basis.
The science behind this is less clear however, although a recent article on boobingit convinced me that giving my 4-year-old some of my own brand mixed in with his nightly cup of cow’s milk couldn’t do any harm! How long antibodies might last and whether they can protect from infection is still being studied, but a key message is that breastfeeding for longer than you might have anticipated is a smart choice and could have a beneficial effect for your child, especially in the absence of vaccines for the youngest members of society.
An exclusively breastfed baby is more likely to benefit from antibodies in your milk as they degrade over time and need constant exposure. This suggests that the best strategy for protection would be to breastfeed for as long as possible and indeed, some studies have shown a positive correlation between the length of time breastfeeding and antibody concentrations in milk.
This is not to say however, that you should feel pressure to carry on breastfeeding if it is not something you are enjoying or want to do anymore. Although many women were grateful to have been able to elongate their breastfeeding journeys, others felt themselves trapped in an intense situation where the thought of weaning their babies or toddlers provoked a lot of anxiety and guilt. Pandemic or no pandemic, you can always make an empowered choice to stop.
This week, the baby has been the most symptomatic out of all of us so even though my milk hasn’t completely saved him from infection I am certainly grateful that I can offer him at least some antibodies to help him fight it off. At the very least, it provides comfort at what is a very snotty time!
Disclosure: The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and are not upheld in any way by Boobingit. Boobingit is not responsible for any outdated or factual inaccuracies which may appear. Please seek the help of a medical professional should you need it whilst breastfeeding.