Breastfeeding association decries separation of mothers and babies at public hospital

A breastfeeding association in Macau expressed concern about the separation of mothers and babies at birth in the city’s only public hospital, which cited the COVID-19 pandemic as justification.

“It’s hard to believe,”  reacted Virginia Tam, president of the Macau Breastfeeding and Nurturing Promotion Association, who was “quite surprised by the news.”

Even if the mother has COVID-19, Virginia Tam said, the measure “does not comply with the guidelines of the World Health Organization [WHO]” for breastfeeding.

“Since the beginning [of the pandemic], the requirement is that mothers stay with the baby and comply with hygiene requirements, such as the use of a mask, frequent hand washing, but the preference is that the mother and the baby are kept together,”  Ms Tam stressed to Lusa, also noting “the benefits of skin-to-skin contact” between mother and child right after birth to, among other things, facilitate breastfeeding.

Ana Jael Tavares, a Portuguese woman living in Macau, had a caesarean section on Sunday at the city’s only public hospital – Centro Hospitalar Conde de São Januário, and was prevented from seeing her daughter in the first 30 hours after giving birth.

The 41-year-old mother, who is not infected with COVID-19, said that she only had access to basic information, such as the baby’s weight, when her husband went to the floor where the new-borns are located to ask the staff.

“What they told me is that they are using the maternity ward for cases of COVID-19 and, therefore, the babies are on one floor and the mothers on another,”  she noted.

After much insistence to see the child, the woman was taken “to a corner of the neonatology corridor, which is where all the babies are at the moment, with or without problems.”

“Even when they let me see her and I asked to breastfeed, they imposed terrible pressure not to breastfeed. I was in a ward that is protected, to which only doctors and nurses have access. A paediatrician and a nurse were there for a long time for me not to breastfeed “, stressed Ms Tavares, lamenting the “tremendous violence” of the separation to which she has been subject.

Not having breastfed during the first 30 hours also means that the newborn was fed milk formula without parental permission: “Nobody asked me for anything at all,”  stressed Ana Jael Tavares.

The woman, who managed to see her daughter again today (Tuesday), is in a room with three people, including pregnant women and women who have undergone other surgeries, in an exceptional situation resulting from preventive measures against COVID-19.

The government confirmed to Lusa the separation of mothers and children, citing “the pandemic situation” as justification.

“It is necessary to meet the urgent medical needs for the treatment of urgent severe cases, but also to protect the safety and health of the mother and new-born. Therefore, having a fourth set with mother and new-born cannot be done for now” , the Health Bureau said in an email sent to Lusa, stressing that the hospital will try to reverse the situation “as soon as possible.”

The department underlined, however, that, for mothers who intend to breastfeed, “the nursing staff will collect and store the breast milk according to the foreseen specifications, and then the newborn will be fed, by a specialized nurse, with the breast milk”, health authorities added.

Macau is experiencing a large-scale COVID-19 outbreak after authorities dropped the strict pandemic restrictions last month.

The Government indicated that as of January 4, some 250,000 people declared they were infected with COVID-19, but authorities estimate that the share of the local population who actually contracted the virus is likely to have reached 60 to 70 per cent.