After all, pregnant women are usually more vulnerable to illnesses than non-pregnant women—and any health scares they experience can put their growing babies at risk. Breastfeeding moms may worry if the virus can pass into their milk and whether it’s okay to continue nursing.
Whether you’re breastfeeding or not, if you have a brand new baby at home, you may be worried about a new virus possibly making its way through your community. What if your baby gets it? So many viruses (like RSV, for example) tend to hit newborns harder than older children. I know that when I was mom to little ones, any virus that was going through my community seriously put me on edge.
One of the most unnerving aspects of the current coronavirus (COVID-19) making its way around the globe is that it’s a brand new virus. Although it’s in the same family as other coronaviruses we have data on, like SARS and MERS, there is still not a lot we know about it. The other troubling thing is that it’s hard to know if the information you’re getting is correct or not.
To help ease your fears (and our own too!), we decided to go straight to the best sources out there: doctors. Yep, we caught up with three practicing physicians (two family doctors and a pediatrician) and asked them to give us the down-low on COVID-19 and its potential effects on expectant and new moms.
Here’s what we learned:
What should pregnant moms know about COVID-19? Can the virus can be passed from mom to baby?
The information we have about COVID-19 and pregnancy is still quite limited at this time, explained Dr. Beth Oller, practicing family physician in Stockton, Kansas. However, what we know so far is somewhat reassuring for pregnant moms.
“So far, it appears that pregnant women are no more likely than anyone else to have severe symptoms,” says Dr. Oller. “The World Health Organization published a report Friday that said that in an analysis of 147 women, only 8% had severe disease with 1% in critical condition,” she explains.
In addition, the babies born so far to moms infected with COVID-19 have not been born with the virus. “There has been no evidence of vertical transmission (transmission from mother to baby),” Dr. Oller said.
At the same time, she cautioned: “There have only been small studies thus far, and they have been in women in later stages of their pregnancy. It is important to note that we do NOT know the effect on women in the early stages of pregnancy. The numbers we have so far from WHO statistics are cause for optimism, but we need data from bigger numbers.”
What health concerns are there for pregnant moms who contract COVID-19?
“Very little is known about the specific risks of Covid-19 and pregnancy,” said Dr. Erica H Kates, a pediatrician with Holyoke Pediatric Associates in Holyoke, MA. “Pregnant women generally have slightly decreased immunity, so they may be at higher risk of contracting the virus if exposed.”
Dr. Georgine Nanos, a family physician from San Diego, California, says the risks facing pregnant moms who contract COVID-19 are similar to the risks faced by pregnant moms who get the flu, and that pregnant women with chronic lung conditions should be especially cautious and properly prepared.
“Pregnant women with asthma or other chronic lung diseases are at even higher risk for respiratory complications and should always have inhalers or necessary medications for these conditions,” says Dr. Nanos.
What’s the best way to keep your newborn safe amid fears of COVID-19?
Dr. Oller explained that the same sorts of tactics you would apply to keep your newborn safe in general can be applied to the current coronavirus scare.
“Keep your baby away from large crowds, or from coming in contact with anyone who is experiencing any symptoms of illness,” says Dr. Oller. “Clean your hands often with soap and water or alcohol-based hand sanitizer and ensure that anyone coming in contact with your infant do the same. Ask anyone who will be visiting the baby if they have had any symptoms of illness, and if so to please stay away.”
Dr. Kates offers some reassuring info about the severity of illness doctors are seeing in children in general. “At this time, Covid-19 appears to be less active in children, causing mild symptoms if any,” she says. “Your best protection is hand washing, hand washing, hand washing.”
What should breastfeeding moms know about COVID-19? Is there evidence it can be transmitted via breastmilk?
Breastfeeding is also an area where there is, unfortunately, limited data at this time. But so far all the doctors we spoke said there is no evidence that COVID-19 passes into breastmilk (yay!) and there is no reason at this time to stop breastfeeding, especially because breastmilk itself is protective against illnesses.
“Although data are limited at this point, breastfeeding is generally thought to be safe, as most respiratory viruses are not transmitted through breastmilk,” says Dr. Kates. “Breastmilk can have a protective effect, as it contains antibodies and enzymes that support an infant’s immune system.”
If a mom were to get COVID-19, could she still breastfeed?
This one is a bit tricky, because obviously you don’t want to risk transmitting the virus to your baby. But because breastfeeding is so important for babies when they are facing illness, continuing to breastfeed—with safety measures in place—is important.
“As of now the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, is still recommending breastfeeding even for mothers with known coronavirus,” explained Dr. Nanos.“Strict hand washing precautions and wearing a mask would be appropriate in this situation.”
The decision whether or not to breastfeed directly or give your baby pumped milk would be something to discuss with your healthcare provider. Dr. Nanos advises that moms with COVID-19 wash their pump parts carefully if they are pumping for their babies.
In what scenarios would it be appropriate to separate an infected mother from her baby — in what scenarios can they stay in contact, and what safety measures should they take?
Okay, so what happens if you contract COVID-19? Can you still care for your baby? What is best here?
“There is so much we still don’t know, such as whether newborns who contract the virus are at increased risk of serious complications,” explains Dr. Oller.
However, there is certainly the risk that an infected mom would infect her baby, and the decision about whether protecting your baby means full separation or just extra safety precautions is one that you should make with your healthcare provider, says Dr. Oller.
“I recommend any mother to discuss the risks of separation with her healthcare team to determine the best course of action for her and her baby,” she said. “The decision should be made on a case-to-case basis, and take into consideration severity of disease, illness signs and symptoms, and laboratory results of testing for the virus.”
The Bottom Line
So there you have it. All of the doctors we spoke to emphasized that there is still a lot we just don’t know about COVID-19. At the same time, they urged parents to stay informed, get information from reputable sources like the CDC and American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), both of which are constantly updating their guidelines in regard to pregnant women, breastfeeding women, and babies.
Dr. Nanos urged us all to try to keep things in perspective. “The flu kills 50-80,000 people in the United States each year and infects millions worldwide,” she explained. “Most people who are healthy do not suffer serious complications from the flu. The same will probably be true of coronavirus.”
She also recommended we all do our best not to ourselves spiral into fear or despair. (I know: easier said than done!)
“This too shall pass,” assured Dr. Nanos. “Don’t panic.”