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Giving Birth During a Pandemic: Can You Pass COVID to Your Newborn?

newborn baby at the hospital
New moms are unlikely to transmit COVID to their newborns.

Cavan/Getty Images 

Key Takeaways

  • A recent study indicates that rates of COVID transmission from moms to newborns is relatively low.
  • This is likely due to extreme precautions taken in order to keep newborns healthy and safe.
  • Debate continues about whether moms and newborns should be separated if the mother tests positive for COVID-19.

To say it’s unnerving to be pregnant during a pandemic is an understatement. You’re likely facing the possibility of having to wear a mask while you’re pushing, you won’t be able to have anyone except your partner present at the birth, and you’ll have to navigate the newborn phase pretty much on your own.

And perhaps the biggest thing to worry about is what will happen if you come down with COVID-19 just prior to giving birth. With cases continuing to rise across the United States, the risks of contracting the coronavirus remain considerable, and the last thing you want to do is make your baby sick.

While there’s very little data to look at yet, most of the limited studies that have been performed on COVID transmission from mom to baby indicate that the risk is relatively low. Here, we’ll examine why that is, along with what precautions should be taken if you do happen to deliver while you’ve got a contagious case of coronavirus.

Study Findings

In a recent study published in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, only 4% of infants born to mothers who tested positive for COVID-19 at the time of delivery ended up testing positive themselves. This is likely due to extreme hygiene measures and isolation practices being put into place for mothers with known cases of COVID, as well as protective antibodies in the breastmilk of these mothers, says Kimberly Langdon, MD, an OBGYN with Medzino.

There are two ways a mother could potentially pass COVID to her infant: through the placenta while the baby is in utero (referred to as vertical transmission), and after the birth from exposure to infected respiratory droplets. To date, there have been isolated reports of infants being born and infected with COVID, with at least one instance of the virus being transmitted to a fetus through the mother's placenta. But since vertical transmission cases are so rare, most hospitals, for now, are focused on preventing the transmission of coronavirus from an infected mother to an infant after birth.

How to Prevent Spreading COVID to Your Baby

Everything we know about the novel coronavirus indicates that it spreads very easily from person to person through respiratory droplets from coughing, sneezing, or talking. For now, studies have indicated that kids are largely spared the worst of the virus’ symptoms. As for infants subject to exposure, however, studies indicate that caution should still be taken due to a lack of evidence. So what can be done to protect a tiny newborn from this nasty bug? According to Ariana Witkin, MD, a board-certified pediatrician and newborn hospitalist at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the following precautions can help reduce the risk of transmitting germs from mother to baby:

  • Practice good hand hygiene. Wash hands frequently, especially after eating, using the restroom and before handling the infant.
  • Practice breast hygiene. If you’re breastfeeding, you should wash your chest before feeding.
  • Wear a mask at all times. This includes while breastfeeding.
  • Enlist help. Having another caregiver perform daily tasks such as diaper changing and bathing can help reduce the risk of infecting your baby while still having a chance to bond through feeding sessions.
  • Isolation. Though it's unpleasant, isolation has been proven to be one of the best protective measures for your baby if you're COVID-positive at birth.

Should Moms Be Isolated From Babies in the Hospital?

With stay-at-home orders still in effect in many regions, and social distancing the new norm these days, it makes sense on some level to keep babies away from their COVID-infected mothers. But numerous studies have shown that bonding begins immediately after birth, and that bonding, along with breastfeeding, are the cornerstones of a healthy start in life. As such, the recent study also examined infants that nursed with their mothers versus those that were isolated from their mothers.

Medical personnel seem to be conflicted on this front: doctors recognize the obvious health benefits of separating babies from an infected parent, but also know that it's a far-from-ideal situation.

"This should be a shared clinical decision with the mother and the clinical team and considered on a case-by-case basis evaluating the risks and benefits," says Anthony Padula, MD, triple-board-certified physician in adult medicine, pediatrics, and rheumatology at the Northern California Arthritis Center in Walnut Creek, CA. Isolation procedures can be considered based on the particular situation.

If you've tested positive but you're asymptomatic, Padula suggests that your baby could be placed in an isolette 6 feet away. But as difficult as separation would be, Padula strongly recommends it if you're having symptoms of COVID or if your baby was born prematurely, or has other medical conditions that could exacerbate a COVID infection.

In these cases, says Padula, "it is recommended that the mother express breastmilk with a dedicated breast pump using appropriate infectious precautions and have another caretaker administer expressed breast milk."

Can Breastfeeding Protect a Newborn From COVID? 

Given that advice, is it safe to breastfeed your baby if you've got an active COVID infection at birth? The CDC and AAP both currently recommend that even mothers who test positive for COVID at the time of birth should still breastfeed their babies if that’s what they desire to do—which makes sense considering that breastmilk is one of the best ways to boost your baby's immunity.

According to Jaimie Zaki, a licensed practical nurse who’s also a postpartum doula and IBCLC-certified lactation consultant, “Breastfeeding transmits antibodies from the mother's immune system to the baby to protect against all kinds of illnesses. Recent studies have shown that breastmilk can contain COVID antibodies if the mother was exposed and had an immune reaction herself. While a complete study has yet to be published, based on what we know about immunology and breastmilk, it is reasonable to presume that breastmilk can be protective for newborns.”

The World Health Organization’s stance on breastfeeding by COVID-positive mothers agrees: “WHO recommends that mothers with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 should be encouraged to initiate or continue to breastfeed.”

And that’s the same recommendation the American Academy of Pediatrics makes: “While studies have not found SARS-CoV-2 in breast milk, COVID-19 can be transmitted by respiratory droplets. Breastfeeding can help protect infants from infection, and breastfed infants are less likely to have severe respiratory symptoms, according to the guidance.”

For the most part, the coronavirus pandemic has spared children, who have generally not become as sick as older adults. That’s good news if you’re expecting during these unprecedented times. Know that if in the small chance you test positive for COVID around the time you give birth, protective measures can still be put in place to ensure your baby’s health, while still giving them the best start in life, which comes from bonding with you as early as it's safe to do so.

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