A Guide to HIV and Breastfeeding
Breastfeeding is often considered essential for the growth and development of a child. This is because, during the initial stages of their lives, children need breast milk as a primary source of nutrition. This, however, can become complicated if you are ill. Because breast milk is a form of bodily fluids, it can spread diseases if the mother is suffering from a chronic health condition like HIV/AIDS. To better understand how to overcome this obstacle, we must first understand the intricacies of HIV and infant feeding.
HIV is a virus that attacks the immune system within the body and renders it incapable of fighting off diseases. The virus spreads only by an exchange of certain body fluids like blood, semen, rectal fluids, vaginal fluids, and breast milk. The most common way the virus spreads is through intercourse and sharing injection needles.
HIV positive mothers may transfer the virus to the baby through the placenta, during pregnancy (through secretions and blood), and through breast milk. On certain occasions, HIV may be transmitted through blood from cracked and bleeding nipples as well. Without intervention, an HIV positive mother has a 35 to 45 percent chance of transmitting the virus to the baby. However, this percentage can be reduced to almost 1% with the right antiretroviral (ARV) drug treatment throughout pregnancy and delivery, and opting for a C-section delivery.
Are you wondering whether HIV can be transmitted through breast milk? Let’s find out how and what you can do to keep your baby safe.
Can You Breastfeed With HIV/AIDS?
The general consensus is that mothers who are HIV positive refrain from breastfeeding their babies, as there is a 10 to 20 percent chance of the virus being transmitted through breast milk. The popular choice, in places where there is access to clean, boiled water, is to formula feed the baby for six months, until solid foods can be given.
However, WHO has suggested a combination of exclusive breastfeeding (baby is fed only breast milk) and antiretroviral drugs to the baby or the mother to enable babies of HIV positive mothers to benefit from breast milk for the first 6 months of their lives. It is best to not mix-feed the baby with solid food and breast milk before six months, to reduce the risk of HIV. This option is suggested only in places where clean boiled water is not available at all times.
How Does AIDS/HIV Affect Breast Milk?
There is very little information on how HIV affects breast milk. It is known that breast milk contains three HIV reservoirs – RNA, proviral DNA, and intracellular RNA. However, their role in HIV transmission through breast milk is not well researched.
Factors That Protect Your Baby From HIV
Here are some factors you need to consider to protect your child from HIV.
It is important that you continue treatment on a regular basis, do not miss your ART. Treatment can reduce the risk of spreading the disease through breast milk. By sticking to the treatment, the risk of the disease spreading is reduced greatly.
Treat the Baby
Ensure you treat the baby for HIV with antiretroviral drugs for the period your doctor suggests. This treatment can prevent HIV from affecting your baby. It is mandatory that your child be treated for HIV if you are HIV positive, this is for the safety of both your child and the general public.
Breastfeed Only If Necessary
It is recommended that you feed your baby formula for the first six months. Breastfeed only if you do not have access to formula and clean boiled water. Ensure that you visit your doctor regularly and take antiretroviral drugs throughout the duration for which you are breastfeeding.
Get Your Baby Checked Regularly
If you are breastfeeding, have your baby checked on a regular basis to see if he is HIV positive. This can help treat your baby early enough for them to live a life that is close to normal.
Having HIV can be tough on a mother. Ensure that you are alert and sanitize yourself regularly, especially if you accidentally cut yourself. If your baby accidentally ingests your blood, treat and cover any wounds as soon as they appear. Don’t neglect your child’s open wounds.
How to Feed Your Baby If You Are HIV Positive
Breast milk, even when treated with drugs to reduce the severity of AIDS or HIV in your body can be passed onto your baby. The safest way to feed your child is by preparing baby formula or bottle feeding your child.
To feed baby formula is considered safe as the formula is usually made with powder and water. This means it is manmade and has no exposure to the disease. To prepare the formula, simply follow the steps mentioned below:
- Sterilize the storage container with boiling water.
- Prepare the formula by adding warm water to the formula feed powder.
- Store the container in the refrigerator and use within a day or two.
If your doctor advises you to breastfeed, then it is recommended that you follow the steps mentioned below:
- Breastfeed your child exclusively for 6 months, and ensure you get treated with ART at least once a week.
- Use heated breast milk or expressed breast milk to reduce the risk of spread of AIDS/HIV.
- Ensure your baby is treated for the entire period you breastfeed.
- Check them regularly.
Ensure you feed your baby safely by consulting an MFM specialist. These are doctors who specialise in helping women with diseases like AIDS prepare a baby formula that is both safe and nutritious for their baby. Follow the doctor’s instructions, and take the necessary precautions if your baby is HIV+. Be sure to inform the school and follow up on treatments if your baby does have it. Do not be ashamed of HIV or AIDS. Talk to your doctor about support groups to help you cope and manage with this condition and ensure you consider your psychological health as well. This disease isn’t taboo and having it doesn’t make you or your child dangerous.