In a country where breast milk donation is still a taboo topic, Vipal Dhaval Chaudhari — who gave birth to her child earlier this year — has contributed towards a noble initiative by donating her stored breast milk to a breast milk bank.
Amongst the millions of requests for leads on oxygen cylinders, beds, and medications, pleas for breast milk donors for newborns — whose mothers have contracted the virus or have succumbed to it — are also slowly making their way onto our timelines.
With several pregnant women and new mothers being infected during this devastating new wave, ongoing studies are investigating whether they could be at an increased risk as pregnancy could be an immunocompromised condition.
Chaudhari recalls that when her sister-in-law gave birth to a premature child 21 years ago and was unable to feed her, it was difficult to find a feeding donor as donations were not common back then. “Both my family and I were really happy after donating because this problem had happened in our home years ago as well,” she says. Currently at her maternal house in Mehsana in Gujarat, Chaudhari says she has stocked up some more milk, which she plans to donate once the lockdown is lifted.
One of the most prominent people who volunteered to donate was Safoora Zargar, a student activist who had been imprisoned for most of her pregnancy for her role in the anti-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) protests. Many commented to applaud her gesture during these difficult times.
The Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights has also launched a helpline (+91 9311551393) to support children whose caretakers are unavailable due to COVID-19 and offered to connect to women who can donate breast milk. A news publication also reported that mothers in Bengaluru have formed support groups to provide breast milk to babies whose mothers were hospitalised.
Why do newborns need breast milk?
Contracting COVID-19 during pregnancy may present a risk to maternal health, but not as much for newborns. According to ongoing research, only low risk has been seen in newborns born to COVID-19 positive mothers. However, studies have shown that getting infected with the virus during the final trimester of pregnancy could increase the risk of preterm births as well.
While breast milk can be important for most newborns, it is especially necessary for preterm babies with a weak immune system and low birth weight. Breast milk can supply the necessary nutrients as it also has ingredients like stem cells and white blood cells to protect against allergies and infections. Studies have also shown that babies who are breastfed are less likely to suffer from illnesses like diarrhea, gastroenteritis, common cold and flu, ear and chest infections.
Although breast milk is a healthy choice, studies including one by Harvard have shown that formula feeding is a safe replacement and in dire times like this families need not run around for breast milk if it is not easily available. Combining breast and bottle feeding is also an option if quantity becomes a challenge.
As a distressed India continues to battle the cruel second wave of the pandemic, it is heartwarming to witness a rising force where every individual is pooling their resources to support everyone who has been affected.
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh and Sanhati Banerjee)