With COVID-19 continuing to pose weighty challenges for people around the world, many are beginning to wonder how and when the pandemic will begin to take a backseat. Currently, one of the largest challenges facing many countries is the inability of certain groups of people to get vaccinated—specifically those under the age of 12. Unable to get vaccinated, this group now represents a growing share of new weekly COVID-19 cases—about 22% as of April 29, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. While much more evidence is needed to confirm its findings, a recent study has found a potential safeguard for infants against COVID-19. The study found high levels of COVID antibodies in the breast milk of vaccinated parents. This discovery could mean that infants who are nursing may receive some level of immunity from their parent.
Could There Be COVID Antibodies in Breast Milk?
A recent study has found that breast milk from individuals who have received a COVID-19 vaccine contains antibodies that may potentially protect nursing infants against infection.
The study, published in the journal Breastfeeding Medicine, was conducted by a team of researchers from the University of Florida. The team said their findings could have a positive influence on vaccination rates for pregnant and lactating women, for whom vaccines have been deemed safe but many remain hesitant.
“A lot of moms, pregnant women, are afraid to get vaccinated. They want to do what’s best for their babies,” said Dr. Josef Neu, study co-author and professor in the UF College of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics and Neonatology. He added, “This is something that we wanted to know, whether it [vaccines] may actually provide some benefit”.
Senior study author Dr. Joseph Larkin III said that because babies are born without a fully developed immune system and are too young to be vaccinated, they are more vulnerable to diseases. But he says breast milk can help to strengthen immunity against infection.
“Milk is a dynamic substance,” he said. “So, in other words, what the baby and the mum [are] exposed to in the environment, there are changes in the milk that correspond to these environmental conditions, and these can then specifically help the baby.”
The study was completed by a team of researchers from the University of Florida’s College of Nursing, Department of Pediatrics, and Department of Microbiology and Cell Science along with one author from the Medical University of South Carolina.
What Did the Study Find?
The study analyzed the breast milk of 21 lactating parents who worked in the healthcare field. The participants were observed from December 2020, right at the start of the United States’ vaccine rollout, until March 2021. The study only examined individuals who received either the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine.
The participants’ blood and breast milk were tested at three separate intervals during the study—before vaccination, following the first vaccine dose, and following the second vaccine dose.
Researchers found that in the breast milk in all 21 women, there was a nearly 100-fold increase in immunoglobulin A antibodies. Also known as IgA, immunoglobulin A is an antibody that plays a vital role in immune function and the body’s ability to fight off infections. The team said that this increase was observed following the second dose.
The study also found that the participants who received the Pfizer vaccine had more antibodies in their breast milk when compared with those who received the Moderna vaccine. That said, the team noted that more research is needed to confirm their findings.
The UF study acknowledged that their findings did not determine whether and to what extent the antibodies could protect against COVID-19. However, the study did show that vaccination was safe for the 21 mothers involved and provided them with immunity, Neu said. He and Larkin emphasized that their study is not meant to stress anyone who can’t breastfeed, and they hope its findings encourage more people to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
“By just them becoming vaccinated, they are already helping the baby,” Larkin said.
Multiple other studies have examined COVID antibodies in breast milk, some even pointing towards possible immunity for nursing infants.
Are Antibodies Found in Breast Milk Able To Protect Nursing Infants?
Other studies have shown that antibodies produced by pregnant individuals vaccinated for COVID-19 are passed to a fetus through the umbilical cord blood. One such study is from researchers at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian, which has been published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology.
Another study, published in JAMA Network, of 84 women detected strong production of IgA and IgG antibodies in breast milk for six weeks after vaccination. The overwhelming majority (97%) had elevated breast milk antibodies.
The researchers also observed neutralizing effects in the immune proteins, potentially signaling that they keep infants safe from COVID-19.
“This means that mothers are not only producing antibodies within their bodies at high levels for protection against the virus that causes COVID-19 but also, they produce high enough levels that the antibodies are secreted via their breast milk,” says Dr. Priya Soni, a pediatric infectious disease specialist in the Cedars-Sinai Pediatrics Department who was not involved with the study.
While still unclear, scientists believe that this extended antibody production may help protect infants against COVID-19. Vaccinating a mother before pregnancy could allow immune cells to be transferred during the third trimester and breastfeeding stages, protecting the baby from a very young age, says Dr. Soni.
Do Antibodies in Breast Milk Mean Your Baby Is Vaccinated?
For some, the notion that some studies have found COVID antibodies in breast milk may lead some parents to believe their child is now “vaccinated.” This is simply not the case. Scientists still don’t fully understand to what extent these antibodies protect against COVID-19.
“Though we are seeing potential protection through breast milk, this is considered “passive immunity,'” Dr. Soni clarifies.
This “passive” immunity may provide some level of protection, but it is not considered to be the same as vaccinated protection. For now, there is still a long way to go before scientists can determine whether COVID antibodies in breast milk provide adequate protection. Currently, the best way to protect yourself and your child is to get vaccinated as early as you can. That means ideally to get vaccinated before getting pregnant, although there is no risk associated with vaccination during any point of pregnancy.
For more information on the COVID-19 vaccines, or if the vaccine is safe for you or your nursing child, it’s always important to talk with your doctor. For more general information about the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, visit the CDC’s website to learn more and read frequently asked questions.
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