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Pregnant Women With COVID-19 Usually Have Healthy Babies, Study Suggests

Mom wearing mask breastfeeds newborn in hospital room

 

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Key Takeaways

  • A study has found that babies born to moms who had COVID-19 late in their pregnancy were healthy and well by 6 to 8 weeks of age.
  • This early study had some limitations, including lack of diversity in participants, so more research is needed.
  • Staying healthy during pregnancy and taking COVID-19 precautions can help moms-to-be avoid getting sick.

What happens to your baby if you test positive for COVID-19 while pregnant? For much of the pandemic, the answer remained unknown—leaving moms-to-be worried about what the diagnosis meant for their pregnancy. 

But expectant families may be able to breathe a sigh of relief after hearing about recent research from the University of California San Francisco, which has found that most infants born to moms with COVID-19 are healthy and well by the time they’re 6 to 8 weeks old.

While research is ongoing, these early findings offer an optimistic outlook for growing families affected by the coronavirus. 

Health of Infants From Moms with COVID-19

The journal Clinical Infectious Diseases recently published the first report from the U.S. that looked at the health outcomes of infants born to moms with COVID-19 by the time they turn 6 to 8 weeks old.

The study followed 263 infants from across the country whose moms are participating in the Pregnancy Coronavirus Outcomes Registry (PRIORITY), an ongoing study focused on pregnant women who tested positive for COVID-19 or are suspected of having it.

The researchers collected data from moms by phone, e-mail, and text message when they enrolled in the study, as well as just after childbirth and six to eight weeks after delivery. They also confirmed some of the moms’ information through SARS-CoV-2 test results and infant medical records.

The findings showed that the prevalence of preterm birth and respiratory issues was no different between babies from the 179 moms who tested positive for COVID-19 during their pregnancy and the 84 moms who tested negative. 

Only two of infants (1.1%) born to moms with COVID-19 also tested positive for the disease. One had no health problems. The second was born very prematurely and had mild health problems (e.g. anemia), but the authors suggest the infant's issues were typical of babies born at 26 weeks. Neither infant needed rehospitalization in the follow-up period.

Among moms who tested positive for COVID-19, those diagnosed in the last two weeks of pregnancy were more likely to have a preterm birth. Their infants were also more likely to be admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), but those babies usually did quite well by the time they turned 6 to 8 weeks old. The researchers reported that none of the infants in the study had pneumonia or a lower respiratory tract infection.

Roy Benaroch, MD

It is super reassuring that babies born to moms with COVID-19 compared to moms who did not have COVID-19 were identical in every meaningful way.

— Roy Benaroch, MD

“It is super reassuring that babies born to moms with COVID-19 compared to moms who did not have COVID-19 were identical in every meaningful way,” says Roy Benaroch, MD, adjunct assistant professor of pediatrics at the Emory University School of Medicine and medical lecturer at The Great Courses Plus.

“The findings fit with the overall observation that children are relatively less affected by COVID-19,” he adds.

What This Means For You

While it can feel like a scary time to welcome a new addition into your family, this study offers some reassurance that most infants are healthy a few weeks after birth—even if their mom had COVID-19 late in their pregnancy.

On a broader level, understanding who is most at risk of COVID-19 can help doctors strategize prevention measures and direct limited resources, like testing and treatment, to people most in need. The more we understand about this virus, the better equipped we are to stop the spread.

Limitations of the Research

While this study offers an optimistic outlook for babies in the pandemic, it does have some limitations that may require further investigation. The authors say that infant testing for COVID-19 was incomplete at the time of the study, which only used data available by June 22, 2020. 

The demographic composition of the PRIORITY participants also skewed white and underrepresented Black and Latina moms. Since people of color have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 due to ongoing systemic health and social inequities, scientists may not be able to generalize the results of this research to the population at large, the authors say. 

“They did not include a lot of Hispanics and Blacks in the study, and unfortunately those groups tend to have more adverse outcomes,” explains Felice Gersh, MD, OB-GYN, founder and director of the Integrative Medical Group of Irvine in Irvine, California, and author of “PCOS SOS Fertility Fast Track." She adds, “They’re the highest-risk groups.”

The PRIORITY researchers have been working on recruiting people from underrepresented groups and engaging with communities most impacted by the coronavirus to improve the diversity of their study.

Finally, the majority of the births assessed in the study came from COVID-19 infections that occurred in the third trimester, which means that we don’t yet understand what happens to the baby if a woman catches the virus in the earlier, more vulnerable stages of her pregnancy, said Dr. Benaroch. 

“If COVID were to affect, say, brain or heart development in utero, those changes might not be picked up in this study. Those changes occur earlier in pregnancy… and I’d love to see data collected from women who had COVID-19 earlier,” he said.

Dr. Gersh added that the time of infection may be “the critical thing” in determining health outcomes for both the mom and the infant. 

“If she’s actively infected within two weeks of delivery, then there seems to be a higher rate of complications,” says Dr. Gersh, referring to findings from the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report on outcomes of infants born to women with COVID-19 infections at the time of delivery, published on Nov. 6, 2020.

Researchers say that a forthcoming study will offer a more complete picture of the risks of COVID-19 throughout each trimester of pregnancy. 

Despite the drawbacks, this early research gives doctors and moms-to-be more clues about the ways COVID-19 may impact the health of newborns. 

“You can’t just take one study. It’s good, but the more data we get, the better,” says Dr. Gersh.

Healthy Pregnancies During the Pandemic

Pregnant people have a higher risk of getting severely sick from COVID-19 than non-pregnant people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Therefore, doctors urge pregnant women to take precautions to avoid catching the coronavirus.

“Being preventative is better than being reactive,” says Dr. Gersh. “What women who are pregnant need to do is take every measure they can to avoid acquiring the infection, including social distancing, limiting contact with other people, and wearing masks.” 

You should also be diligent about keeping your hands clean, either by using hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol or through at least 20 seconds of washing with soap and water. 

Keeping up with your overall health during pregnancy can also help you feel your best and avoid getting sick, adds Dr. Gersh.

She encourages moms-to-be to take prenatal vitamins, get plenty of rest, and maintain their fitness. She also recommends keeping stress levels down through meditation, guided imagery, listening to soft music, or “whatever else works to relax you.”

“We don’t have any clear-cut treatment if you get infected with COVID-19, so the most important thing is to be proactive ahead of time to maintain an optimal state of health,” she says. “Your underlying health and immune function are the ultimate keys to your outcome.” 

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  1. Flaherman VJ, Afshar Y, Boscardin WJ, et al. Infant outcomes following maternal infection with severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2): first report from the Pregnancy Coronavirus Outcomes Registry (PRIORITY) studyClin Infect Dis. 2020. doi:10.1093/cid/ciaa1411

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health equity considerations and racial and ethnic minority groups. Updated July 24, 2020.

  3. Woodworth KR, Olson EO, Neelam V, et al. Birth and infant outcomes following laboratory-confirmed sars-cov-2 infection in pregnancy — set-net, 16 jurisdictions, March 29–October 14, 2020MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2020;69(44):1635-1640. doi:10.15585/mmwr.mm6944e2

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19): pregnancy, breastfeeding, and caring for newborns. Updated November 3, 2020.

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