By Madisen Keavy

SACRAMENTO (CBS) — Some mothers who have the COVID-19 vaccine have opted to breastfeed longer to pass antibodies onto their children who are not old enough to receive the vaccine themselves.

One of those mothers is Melissa Pennel. She lives in Sacramento and has two daughters, Mirabel, 7 months, and Matilda Buniak, 2. Mirabel was born in the middle of the pandemic and Pennel received her first dose of the vaccine the day before she gave birth.

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“I got the antibodies to my growing baby, and I got them in the breastmilk,” said Pennel.

From the start, she said she knew the subject had become divisive. In online groups for moms, she saw how vaccination status drew a line in the sand for some of her peers.

“I think that I have a lot in common with a mom who feels really strongly about not getting vaccinated,” said Pennel.

Pennel said she, like many other mothers, wants the best for her children and will do what she sees fit to protect them. In a global pandemic where health guidelines evolved, social isolation was a norm, and the regular outings for families were paused, Pennel said she saw the vaccine as her way to take back some of the control.

“I feel it encircled my little family in this imagined, and somewhat verified, protection,” said Pennel.

She knew Mirabel got some antibodies in that first vaccine dose, at least a little bit, and wanted it to continue. She continues breastfeeding — something she said isn’t easy or always possible for all mothers. It worked for her and she doesn’t take it for granted.

“I know many women can’t breastfeed for many reasons. There’s the choice we make with the options and the information that we have,” said Pennel.

Her two-year-old was weaned from breastfeeding by the time Pennel got the vaccine. She still wanted to give the same antibody protections to her daughter and opted for breastmilk with her morning cereal.

“I used breastmilk for that very first meal of the day,” said Pennel.

Pennel isn’t alone in sharing breastmilk with children who have been weaned, in fact, a recent study shows it does pass antibodies to children.

The study, published in Pediatrics, a publication by the American Academy of Pediatrics, followed a cohort from February 2 to April 4, 2021.

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Results showed that 89% of participants of the study who were vaccinated had antibodies in their milk. Of those participants, mothers who were breastfeeding 24 months were higher than in mothers with breastfeeding periods below 24 months.

The study’s authors concluded that there is an association between COVID-19 vaccination and antibodies in human milk. The findings support guidance from the CDC: “Vaccination of pregnant people builds antibodies that might protect their baby,” according to the CDC’s guidance for vaccines while pregnant or breastfeeding.

Another Sacramento mother, Eva Schwartz, said she feared what would happen if her sons got the virus. Her oldest, Isaac, is 6 and her youngest, Theo, is 16 months.

Eva Schwartz and her boys, Theo (left) and Isaac

“I breastfeed because my kid is too young to get the vaccine and I would like my kid to get antibodies for as long as possible,” said Schwartz.

Isaac received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine this week. It’s a relief for Schwartz who said she worries about both of her children getting sick.

Breastfeeding, she said, is personal to her and knowing she can pass along those potentially life-saving antibodies is a bonus.

Pennel added to that sentiment. For her, it’s about giving her daughters something that’s lasting. What started as the ability to pass along antibodies, morphed into a passion-project journal of advice she authored.

The “Questions You’ll Wish You Asked” journaling book series was created by Pennel during the pandemic. She said when it came to vaccinations, breastfeeding, and even, giving birth in the middle of the pandemic, she didn’t have her own mother to rely on. Pennel said she thinks her mother, who died a few years ago, would have told her to get the vaccine and do what she could to keep her daughters healthy.

According to CDC data, only 31 percent of pregnant people have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

In a statement posted on the CDC’s website in September, CDC Director Rochelle P. Walensky, said: “I strongly encourage those who are pregnant or considering pregnancy to talk with their healthcare provider about the protective benefits of the COVID-19 vaccine to keep their babies and themselves safe.”

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CDC data also shows vaccination rates are higher among Asian people who are pregnant, but lower among Hispanic or Latino pregnant people, and lowest among Black pregnant people.