Breastfeeding and HIV

If you are HIV-positive, consider safe feeding options for your baby

The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) can be transmitted to your baby during childbirth and breastfeeding. Initially, the World Health Organisation (WHO) did not advocate breastfeeding for HIV positive mothers if they were able to afford and store formula safety.


However, about 10 years ago, the WHO released new recommendations and HIV-positive mothers are now encouraged to breastfeed, provided they follow some important guidelines.

Breast milk is nature’s perfect food for your newborn and will meet all the nutritional requirements he or she needs. Breastfeeding reduces the risk for gastroenteritis and is free of charge. Breast milk also contains your antibodies, which are passed to your baby during

breastfeeding. This can help to boost his or her immune system.

You have a right to decide what is best for you and your baby. If you decide to formula feed your baby, that is your choice. If you decide to breastfeed, here are guidelines to follow to prevent the transmission of HIV to your baby.

1. Take ARVs

Continue with your antiretroviral therapy (ART), which is a combination of antiretroviral (ARV) drugs. Follow your doctor’s advice on how to take your medication. The use of ARVs reduces the risk for transmission of the virus to your baby. Your newborn may be prescribed liquid ARVs to take for six weeks after birth.

2. Breastfeed Exclusively

This means that baby must only receive breast milk. Moms are also encouraged to demand feed, where baby is given the breast when he or she cries or when mom notices the baby’s  hunger cues. If baby is hungry, he may turn his head to the side and/or try to suck his hands. A short, low-pitched cry or restless, fussy behaviour is a late hunger cue.

Mothers are also encouraged not to mix feed with formula feeds or start baby on solids before six months of age. The risk of HIV transmission is lower with exclusive breastfeeding than with mixed feeding. After six months, you can start your baby on solids and introduce formula feeds if you want to. You can continue to breastfeed baby to 12 months, or for a shorter duration if you want to stop.

3. Care for Your Breasts

A number of breastfeeding problems occur with incorrect latching. Latching refers to the way baby takes the nipple into his or her mouth to start sucking. Incorrect latching can be painful for the mother and lead to cracked nipples. It also increases the risk for mastitis, an infection in the milk ducts, or a breast abscess, a painful pus-filled lump caused by an infection. All these can increase the risk of HIV transmission to the baby. If your baby develops mouth sores or oral thrush, see your doctor or clinic sister for immediate treatment. An open sore can allow the virus to enter your baby’s body. 

4. Practice Safe Sex

All breastfeeding mothers should practice safe sex. If you are HIV-negative and you become infected while breastfeeding, you could pass the virus on to your baby. If you are HIV-positive, continue to practice safe sex. Visit your doctor regularly to check your viral load and CD4 count.;;;;

Photo by Luiza Braun on Unsplash

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