Hepatitis C and Breastfeeding

I have 6 children. I breastfed them all until I was embarrassed. Translation: until about 2 years old, give or take, depending on the child and my ability to endure. Yes, endure. Breastfeeding is enormously rewarding but it is also hard work. It takes commitment, physical strength, patience, and the GPS skills of a Reconnaissance Marine as Mama finds a private spot in the middle of the mall, Wal-Mart, church, or wherever else her busy life may take her.

I loved nursing my babies. Beyond the sheer beauty and enjoyment of breastfeeding babies lies a million health benefits. Especially if Mommy has hepatitis C.

I remember when I first married 25 years ago, the breast was just starting to make its way back into its rightful place - babies' mouth. Despite what's best for baby, we Americans are very much shaped by cultural influences; what's trendy, what's convenient, what others think and do...poor baby. There was only one lady at our church that breastfed, she did so in the closet of the ladies bathroom. The other ladies would roll their eyes and say “Tina's in there breastfeeding.”  Breastfeeding was considered a bit disgusting and perhaps even perverted in our little subculture. Because of this influence, my husband, James, and our whole family discouraged me from breastfeeding. I was pretty compliant regarding the "unwritten rules” in our world, save this one thing. I couldn't wait to nurse and nurture my babies. I read every book I could find about the benefits of breastfeeding and called 'La Leche' before I even delivered just to talk about breastfeeding, learn how to mother and to be encouraged.

After my first was born, our family showed up with bottles and formula. It was my turn to roll my eyes. I had determined to never use any bottles or even pacifiers. I wanted to be my baby's pacifier. O and James, I knew he had fully converted from his "no nursing stance" when I heard him share with the Barista at Starbucks that our Kaleb had “nothing but breast." He also told the man at the insurance office, his Uncle, our Pastor, the neighbor who lived behind us and a random lady in the produce department...

If I wasn't a hepatitis C advocate I would be a breastfeeding advocate.

Breastfeeding with Hep C Will Not Infect the Baby

Did you know that when Mommy cradles baby, the distance between mommy and baby's face is exactly the prime distance for focus? A little closer or further away and objects blur. Did you know that when baby has an infection, Mommy's breast milk knows how to create antibodies to treat just exactly that specific infection? Did you also know that it's perfectly safe and recommended for mothers with hepatitis C to breastfeed their infants? You need to know this, Mama. You probably even need to print this information from the CDC out to take with you to the delivery room and prenatal appointments, since many healthcare professionals are unaware regarding this science. HIV is different than HCV. HIV can be passed from mom to baby through breastfeeding and many providers falsely assume the same rules apply. They don't.

Pro-tip: Consider humility when approaching a healthcare professional with information, they may be unaware of. "So, I saw this and wondered what you thought about it?" May work better than "Sign here stating all elements of my birth plan must be strictly adhered to including, but not limited to, breastfeeding immediately after birth." I've heard the former works better than the latter, but can't say I have tried it. 

I am so glad the breast is back! It's trendy to breastfeed which is great because the trend is certainly backed up by endless science, not to mention chubby, healthy, loved little babies. I understand that something so intimate, to even include exchanging body fluids may seem like a bad idea when a communicable disease is involved, this especially when it's a precious vulnerable baby we're talking about and yet it's not only acceptable it is the very best thing we can do for our babies. Especially in the unlikely event that they DO develop hepatitis C.

Let's Talk About It

About 1 in 20 or 5% of Mamas pass the hepatitis C virus to babies, this seems to be the same for either vaginal or c-section birth. Isn't that amazing? The fact that despite the baby being covered in our blood when born the chances of transmission are low? Skin is usually a very effective and reliable barrier. Let's imagine that baby does contract the virus, the absolute best thing we can do is breastfeed, both to build that bond, but also because breastmilk is full of antibodies and immunities.

One last thought regarding Hepatitis C and Breastfeeding.

I am often asked about disclosing our hep C status. As someone who hid my status for years, and then slowly opened up about how I contracted the disease, I love, appreciate, and accept both sides. I don't think either disclosing or keeping our status hid is right or wrong. However, I wonder if women of childbearing age shouldn't seriously consider the assumptions that may be made by those around her regarding things like pregnancy and breastfeeding. Both for her own protection and the communities. Sweet little squishy babies bring out the Judge Judy in even the meekest of people, and the claws of a Mama Bear. I have often said that I can handle discrimination, but "Don't mess with my family".

Stigma is real and people are ignorant. Consider what you can handle, use wisdom, and do whatever it takes to nurse that baby for as long as you can! And truly I would love to hear from any Mamas with hep C who may need some encouragement.

The following is copied from the CDC:

  • Is it safe for a mother infected with hepatitis C virus (HCV) to breastfeed her infant? Yes. There is no documented evidence that breastfeeding spreads HCV. Therefore, having HCV-infection is not a contraindication to breastfeed. HCV is transmitted by infected blood, not by human breast milk. There are no current data to suggest that HCV is transmitted by human breast milk.
  • Is it safe for the HCV-positive mother to breastfeed if her nipples are cracked and bleeding? Data are insufficient to say yes or no. However, HCV is spread by infected blood. Therefore, if the HCV-positive mother’s nipples and/or surrounding areola are cracked and bleeding, she should stop nursing temporarily. Instead, she should consider expressing and discarding her breast milk until her nipples are healed. Once her breasts are no longer cracked or bleeding, the HCV-positive mother may fully resume breastfeeding.1

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