March 31, 2021 6 min read
While there is some promising news when it comes to vaccine efficacy and availability for teens, as of March 2021, there is not a COVID-vaccine that is currently sanctioned or available for teens, or children. So some parents are searching for what they hope could be something else to protect their kids from Coronavirus.
“Would any lactating parent … vaccinated with the Moderna vaccine be willing to share any breast milk with me?”
This is the question a New York City mom asked of others in her WhatsApp group, according to a recently published article in New York Magazine.
According to the article, she had just learned that another child had come down with COVID-19 at the daycare where her four-month old son was scheduled to go in just a few days. While babies and young children have low odds of getting severely sick from the disease, they have immature immune systems and, in rare cases, have developed several dangerous inflammatory diseases as a result of the coronavirus.
This mother had read about recent studies showing that COVID-fighting antibodies were present in breast milk and could possibly help her baby fight off the virus — though experts caution it’s unclear how much protection they actually get. She had received the vaccine but had to stop breastfeeding. By the end of the day, three women had offered her some of their supply.
“I never thought I would be a person who would be chasing down breast milk. That’s always felt like a very crunchy, Brooklyn thing to do, but here I am,” the mom told New York Magazine.
But she decided to go for it after “trying desperately to think of what I could do, even if the science isn’t fully there, to offer some protection to my child.”
The fear of COVID appears to have stimulated a market for breast milk that all but stopped during the pandemic and caused a spike in demand for extra COVID-fighting milk in order to slip into older kids’ smoothies, cereal, and even scrambled eggs.
The sudden demand has also called attention to the Cuomo administration’s uneven vaccine rollout, which never carved out a discrete category for postpartum women, according to New York Magazine.
It’s legal to sell and donate milk in most cases, so informal networks of parents on Facebook, Reddit, and through doulas have also sprouted up to donate extra supply for babies in need, though they would have to trust donors to be safe.
In fact, the Food and Drug Administration recommends against acquiring milk directly through people on the internet, as they’re “unlikely to have been adequately screened for infectious disease or contamination risk.”
Milk banks, which pasteurize donated milk and then distribute it, charge around $13.50 per 100 milliliters, which adds up to about $150 a day or more to feed an infant.
Other fitness buffs, like Joel Greene and Mark Bell, turned to baby formula in years past, to replicate some of the benefits of mother's milk. The gut health and immune benefits they were searching for comes from Human Milk Oligosaccharide (HMO), the third most abundant solid in breast milk. Circa 2015, major baby formula makers began putting a bio-identical version of HMO in their formulas. Bell and Greene say that chugging baby formula with HMO helped Bell solve a lifetime of lactose intolerance.
However, much of the milk-sharing dried up at the onset of the pandemic in 2020 as concerns over spreading the virus via milk prevailed. Doulas who previously helped mothers exchange milk decided to stop because of their concerns about possibly spreading the virus.
While that fear turned out to be unfounded (the virus doesn’t pass through breast milk), concerns have continued.
When it comes to pregnant and postpartum women, the vaccine rollout has, at times, been confusing. While New York has allowed pregnant women to get the vaccine since February 15, postpartum women haven’t been recognized as their own category, according to the New York Magazine article.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that pregnant women get vaccinated, since they are “at an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19 compared to non-pregnant people.”
It’s also noted that children under a year old “might be at increased risk for severe illness” from the virus. Grace MacNair, a certified lactation consultant in New York, said that the state should have extended to nursing and postpartum women, who can have weakened immune systems after their birth and can be facing higher stress levels from wanting to protect their babies. All of this, according to the New York Magazine article.
Promising indicators began to emerge in March, when pre-print studies showed that antibodies were present in breast milk.Since then, interest has soared.
Lactation-support companies such as Boober, say they have fielded an influx of new questions about breast-milk donations and feeding from clients who are learning about the benefits of the vaccination process. People who work in lactation are encouraged to see there are antibodies in breast milk post-vaccination.
“I have seen an influx of people selling their milk because they’ve either had COVID, so they have the antibodies because they tested positive, or because they’ve gotten the vaccine,” Rebecca Hereford, a health-care worker in Washington who donates her milk, said.
The COVID-fighting properties in an immunized woman mean that parents are hoping to confer those properties onto older children. Hereford, who travels often because of her work for the federal government, said she recently donated milk to a friend in Maryland who quietly used it to make scrambled eggs for her twin 4-year olds and 9-year old - according to the New York Magazine article.
The reality of the situation, is that because breast milk contains Human Milk Oligosaccharides, it is extremely beneficial for the immune system of infants, children, and even adults. This means that whether breast milk has antibodies or not, it would still be incredibly helpful for the person consuming it, almost regardless of their age.
Human Milk Oligosaccharides are clinically proven to work as a prebiotic in the gut microbiome to:
Human Milk Oligosaccharides have gone through numerous clinical trials and have proven have efficacy when it comes to promoting beneficial bacteria, reduction GI issues (motility and pain), reduction of symptoms related to intestinal diseases (IBD and IBS), and antibiotic recovery.
HMOs are proven to increase levels of Bifidobacteria in the gut according to the results from several clinical studies - so in effect - the HMOs are beneficially modulating the intrinsic intestinal microbiota. That modulation occurs primarily via increasing the abundance of bifidobacteria. This, in turn, impacts the metabolite profile - when it comes to Short Chain Fatty Acids, like Butyrate.
In clinical studies, HMOs also substantially lowered gut permeability and lowered IL-6 secretion by intestinal cells.
Perhaps most importantly, in the context of viruses, HMOs were shown to defend against pathogens, both viral and bacterial, by acting as decoy receptors.
There are more than 200 different types of HMOs that can exist in breast milk but the most common HMO is called 2'-Fucosyllactose. For years you could only ingest HMOs and 2'-FL if you literally drank breast milk.
Then, circa 2015, HMOs began popping up in infant formulas because of the immense benefits shown through research and scientific advancements in the production of bio-identical HMOs via precise fermentation and purification.
Now, HMOs are available in powder and capsule form for children and adults to reap the benefits.
The most comprehensive line of pure Human Milk Oligosaccharide in powder and capsule form comes from Layer Origin Nutrition and its PureHMO line of products.
So, before you decide to buy breastmilk full of antibodies from a stranger and mixing it into your kids' food, consider a bottle of HMO powder, which costs about $29. It's tasteless and easily mixes into food or beverages.
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