Mothers turning to breast milk to protect children too young for COVID-19 vaccines

After Danielle Quinn received her first dose of COVID-19 vaccine, she continued to breastfeed her youngest daughter, Elise, in hopes of passing some antibodies to her.

Recently she’s started to sneak some breast milk into the cereal of her older girl, Bria.

“I thought, ‘well, if (breast milk) is good for my one-and-a-half year-old, maybe it’s good for my three-year-old,” Quinn told Global News.

COVID-19 vaccines are not yet approved for children under age 12. The Edmonton mother isn’t the only one hoping to use breast milk to protect children too young to be immunized.

Read more: Is breastfeeding okay during pandemic? University of Regina professor provides clarity

Calgary’s Northern Star Mothers Milk Bank has seen increased interest in milk from COVID-vaccinated women. Some people inquire about giving it to their older kids too.

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But how much protection could it actually provide?

A number of studies, including this one, have confirmed the presence of COVID-19 antibodies in breast milk — from both vaccinated mothers and mothers who had the virus.

Read more: Research shows COVID-19 immunity different than flu immunity, antibodies drop ‘rapidly’ after recovery

However, according to the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada, it’s still unclear whether drinking antibodies can protect an infant from COVID-19.

Ethically, researchers can’t expose babies to the virus to test that, but several teams have tested the quality of breast milk antibodies — and they seem to be good.

“Definitely (breast) milk has immunosufficient (COVID-19) antibodies that can protect the nursing baby,” said Dr. Shokrollah Elahi.

“It just depends on the volume (of milk) and the frequency (of breastfeeding).”

The University of Alberta immunologist says previous studies show various vaccines can generate antibodies which, when passed in breast milk, can prevent infection in infants.

For example, his team vaccinated pregnant animal models with the pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine, then exposed their suckling offspring to the pertussis bacteria. They did not get infected.

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Read more: Study finds breast milk sugar may help stop food allergies in babies

Elahi says some studies show COVID-19 antibodies arrive in breast milk about two weeks after the mother’s first dose, and can last at least three months.

Dr. Catherine Field, a Canada Research Chair in Human Nutrition and Metabolism, is not yet convinced COVID-19 antibodies in breast milk are effective. But if they are, she predicts only young babies would benefit.

“The infant has an intestine that can absorb antibodies — it’s sort of more porous. Once the baby gets older, that doesn’t seem to work anymore,” said Field, who is also a University of Alberta nutrition professor.

“As we get older, the acid in our stomach changes, so a lot of things get neutralized before they get down further to be absorbed.”

Both researchers agree vaccinated mothers such as Quinn certainly aren’t harming their children by giving them breast milk.

She and her husband have both had their first doses. Until her girls are eligible for shots, she says she’ll put in the effort to keep up some breast milk for both of them.

“I do fear for the young ones. It starts to make me a little bit nervous that we’re protected, but how much are they?” said Quinn.

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“If there’s a way for me to (protect them), then I will.”

Read more: Lack of breastfeeding costs global economy nearly $1B every day: researchers

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