Got Breast Milk? With Antibodies?

Without a shot for children, parents hunt for what they think is the next best thing.

In New York, pregnant women have been eligible to get vaccinated but not necessarily postpartum women. Photo: STR/AFP via Getty Images
In New York, pregnant women have been eligible to get vaccinated but not necessarily postpartum women. Photo: STR/AFP via Getty Images

On March 21, Courtney Carson took to a closed Brooklyn parents’ WhatsApp group to make a sensitive request: “Would any lactating parent … vaccinated with the Moderna vaccine be willing to share any breast milk with me?”

Carson, a health-policy advocate living in Park Slope, 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. Carson 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,” Carson told Intelligencer. 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.”

New York is about a week away from opening up vaccine eligibility to everyone over 16 years old, but children may have to wait until next year to get the shot. Now, as COVID-19 cases continue to surge, some parents of younger children are scrambling to get their hands on the next best thing: breast milk from vaccinated women. 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.

“They’re not putting nursing mothers at the forefront,” said Julie Bouchet-Horwitz, executive director of the New York Milk Bank, a nonprofit that distributes donated human milk to new parents. “That’s frustrating.”

Breastfeeding is an enormously popular way for mothers to feed their children, with about eight in ten mothers relying on breast milk as recently as 2016, according to the federal government (up from six in ten in the mid-1990s). Advocacy groups like La Leche League, as well as a slew of positive scientific studies, have accompanied the rise in breastfeeding, even though more recent studies have showed that class and upbringing may have skewed earlier research about developmental benefits.

Still, not all mothers can breastfeed if they want to, which has spurred a lightly regulated economy around it. It’s legal to sell and donate milk in most circumstances, 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.

Many of those networks went dry at the onset of the pandemic last March, said Megan Davidson, a Brooklyn doula. “I haven’t helped anyone exchange milk in over a year because we had a lot of concerns about possibly spreading the virus,” she said. While that fear turned out to be unfounded (the virus doesn’t pass through breast milk), concerns have persisted.

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.

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.

Encouraging signs started to appear in March, when pre-print studies showed that antibodies were present in breast milk. Since then, interest has soared. Jada Shapiro, who founded the Brooklyn lactation-support company Boober, said she has fielded an influx of new questions about breast-milk donations and feeding from clients who are learning about the benefits of the vaccination process. “Most people who work in lactation are very excited to see that there are these antibodies in breast milk post-vaccination,” she said.

Still, while scientists and medical experts were encouraged by the initial studies, they have cautioned that more testing is needed to understand what level of protection children can get.

“We don’t know how long they last there, and we don’t know what dose of milk a baby would need to get some kind of protection,” said Dr. Jill K. Baird, who led a study at the Providence Portland Medical Center which found that COVID-fighting antibodies were present in breast milk. “We also don’t know how long after a woman is vaccinated the antibodies stay in the milk.”

Baird added that while further research on newborn babies may be difficult — parents are often reluctant to allow testing on their children, and it’s difficult to extract a lot of blood from them — she didn’t see any downside in safely feeding breast milk from vaccinated women.

The apparent green light has not only led to more interest in donations but to an increase in women interested in extending their breastfeeding longer than they would have — and even starting again weeks or months after they stopped, Shapiro said.

“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 data on the benefits of breastfeeding after six months is less clear, but parents are hoping the milk will give some level of protection to older kids, too. 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.

Hereford isn’t alone. Olivia de Soria, a co-owner of a North Carolina gutter-cleaning company, said other parents have been extremely enthusiastic about getting her milk since she was vaccinated; she says she is going to use her extra supply for her own children. “I’m pumping to keep my supply up, but I’m sneaking some chocolate breast milk to my toddler in the mornings,” said de Soria.

Yoko Lytle, a Brooklyn lactation consultant who gave some of her extra supply to Carson, said she, too, thought she might try it out with her own older kids. “When I did find out about it, I was like, I might throw some breast milk into their cereal or their smoothies,” she said.

Got Breast Milk? With Antibodies?