I spent the past year being terrified of COVID-19 since I was pregnant for most of that time, and according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, pregnant people are more likely to get sicker with the virus. I'm also a mom to five kids, so I couldn't stop worrying about who would take care of them if I got sick. When the vaccine became available for my age group, I knew I wanted to get it. There was only one problem — I was planning to breastfeed.
Early on, information about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine for pregnant and breastfeeding people was scarce. Then, soon after my son was born in February, the American College of Gynecologists said the COVID-19 vaccine should be offered to lactating people. Additionally, they recommended that those who are breastfeeding talk with their doctors about any specific concerns prior to getting vaccinated. I was still apprehensive, so I talked to my ob-gyn and pediatrician.
Both doctors said the decision to get vaccinated was ultimately mine. But encouragingly, my baby's doctor told me that there was a good possibility that antibodies from the vaccine would be passed to my child. She said she knew of other breastfeeding doctors who were getting vaccinated. I decided that if the vaccine was good enough for breastfeeding medical professionals — who know far more about the science of the virus and the vaccine than I do — it was good enough for me and my little one.
I decided that if the vaccine was good enough for breastfeeding medical professionals — who know far more about the science of the virus and the vaccine than I do — it was good enough for me and my little one.
I believe strongly in the power of breast milk. A few years ago when I was nursing my other son, a wicked stomach bug went through our house. Even though I was so sick, I breastfed him, and this may have been the reason he was the only member of our family who stayed healthy. Likewise, I got the flu when my newborn was just days old, and breastfeeding may explain why he only got mildly ill. The benefits of breastfeeding are not just anecdotal in nature. There are studies that confirm breastfeeding offers protection against illness.
A new study from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that breastfeeding moms who are vaccinated against COVID-19 pass antibodies on to their babies for at least 80 days post-immunization. "Our study showed a huge boost in antibodies against the COVID-19 virus in breast milk starting two weeks after the first shot, and this response was sustained for the course of our study, which was almost three months long," Jeannie Kelly, MD, the lead author and an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology, said in a statement. "The antibodies levels were still high at the end of our study, so the protection likely extends even longer."
When I spoke with Banafsheh Kashani, MD, FACOG, a board-certified ob-gyn and reproductive endocrinology and infertility specialist in Orange County, CA, about the Washington University School of Medicine study, he confirmed the study's results, but noted that more research needs to be done. "These protective antibodies could confer immunity in babies against coronavirus," Dr. Kashani said. "What we do not yet know is how long these antibodies remain in the breast milk after vaccination, and it is likely that this duration varies."
Despite all the evidence, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't nervous about how the COVID vaccine would affect me and my baby. But just before my appointment, I chatted with another breastfeeding mom who had already been immunized. She did not suffer from any major side effects, and her baby did great, too.
Everyone is different, so I still didn't know exactly what to expect. Fortunately, I was pretty OK. After my first shot, I only felt arm soreness. After the second dose, I felt run down for about 48 hours, but experienced no other symptoms. I was able to breastfeed and care for my then 11-week-old with no problems, and I didn't have to worry about the baby suffering from side effects, as experts have said that while antibodies pass through breastmilk, the vaccine does not.
Now that I'm vaccinated, I certainly feel more confident about being outside again. I'm still unsure of what level of protection my baby has. Until there's more data available, I'm playing it safe and limiting our time in crowded spaces. Knowing my baby is a trailblazer when it comes to COVID research is a bit scary. But I am far more terrified of him getting sick than of the vaccine.