UBCO study new breastfeeding research, from COVID-19 to Type 2 diabetes

'Breast is still best'

A UBC Okanagan researcher is sharing the latest trends in breastfeeding and its relationship with Type 2 diabetes, along with what nursing looks like amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

'Breast is still best,' according to Marie Tarrant, the director of UBCO's School of Nursing and researcher on women's health and breastfeeding. 

Canadian Breastfeeding Week is Oct. 1 to Oct. 7.

Tarrant's latest research reveals breast pumping is on the rise as there is an increase in mothers feeding their babies with only breast milk that they've collected ahead of time. Less than half of the women from the study are directly breastfeeding their babies. This is a common trend in Asia, North America and Europe.

“This is a good news, bad news story,” says Tarrant, who worked alongside her University of Hong Kong doctoral student Heidi Fan. 

“While it’s great that the babies are initially getting breast milk instead of formula, these women are more likely to switch to formula earlier than recommended.”

Tarrant says infants should rely on breast milk for at least six months because breast milk meets the ever-changing needs of a baby's nutrition while protecting them against infections. 

“New mothers should first establish direct breastfeeding before introducing bottles. Seek out support to help with this early on.” 

And breastfeeding reduces the risk of Type 2 diabetes in women who have developed pregnancy-related diabetes.

“Up to 20 per cent of women with gestational diabetes will go on to develop Type 2 diabetes,” says Tarrant. “This is a serious condition where blood sugar levels aren’t properly regulated and can lead to serious consequences later, including stroke and blindness.”

Her study uses data from 15 pregnancy-related studies, demonstrating a strong relationship between improved blood sugar and breastfeeding.

“The take-home message is that women are strongly recommended to breastfeed, especially if they have gestational diabetes. In fact, the longer they continue to breastfeed, the lower their risk for developing Type 2 diabetes.”

Looking at COVID-19 pandemic concerns, breastfeeding mothers may be faced with more challenges due to physical distancing.

“Changes away from at-home visits to online platforms are less hands-on and this may make it difficult for everyone,” she says. “Getting an infant to latch on can be trying in the early postpartum and often the best solution is an in-person demonstration.”

New moms should consider reaching out to public health nurses and peers with experience early on, Tarrant suggests. 

“Don’t wait until you’re desperate for help," she says. "Establish support groups right away. Health care professionals can come to your home and are able to safely provide guidance. Peers can provide much-needed psychological support and encouragement. Moms need to know that they are not alone.”

There are some positive findings for breastfeeding mothers.

“To date, there is no evidence that the COVID virus passes through breast milk,” says Tarrant. “Most organizations, including the World Health Organization, encourage all mothers to breastfeed, even if they are COVID positive.”

The benefits of breastfeeding your child massively outweigh the risks of infecting them. COVID-19 positive mothers who breastfeed with protocols in place such as mask wearing and hand washing can minimize the risks. 

“Mothering through breastfeeding is the most natural and effective way of caring for the baby, even in these unusual times,” says Tarrant.

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