By Angela Cabotaje (Estimated reading time: 5 mins)
If you are pregnant, the coronavirus pandemic has likely put you on edge.
Dr. Kristina Adams Waldorf, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at University of Washington School of Medicine and expert in pregnancy infections, and Dr. Edith Cheng, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology and chief of service for obstetrics at University of Washington School of Medicine, explain how expectant parents can keep themselves, and their baby, safe.
Are pregnant women at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19?
In general, pregnancy is associated with changes in the immune system, which can put you at higher risk for health issues and complications from illnesses like the flu. That can also apply to COVID-19, but experts need to conduct more research to know for sure.
“Based on the numbers for the coronavirus, we don’t know if there’s a higher risk for preterm birth or stillbirth or what happens to children that are exposed to the virus in utero and what happens when they grow up,” Adams Waldorf explains.
What experts do know is that certain viral illnesses can cause preterm birth or miscarriage.
Either way, it’s best to take extra precautions to stay safe.
How can pregnant women protect themselves from the coronavirus?
Follow standard COVID-19 precautions: wash your hands, stay home as much as possible, keep 6 feet away from others, and avoid touching your face. If you start to become sick with a fever, cough or have difficulty breathing, seek medical care immediately.
You can also talk to your OB-GYN, midwife, or nurse practitioner about the option of virtual visits for a portion of your maternity care appointments.
Another critical step is to create a back-up plan in case you or your partner get sick. Consider things such as who would care for your baby, how the ill person would self-isolate, and how you could safely receive help from others.
Can I pass the coronavirus on to my baby?
A study of nine pregnant women found no evidence of the virus in amniotic fluid, cord blood, or breastmilk. A more recent study of 33 babies born to mothers who had COVID-19 noted that three of the babies were infected, although the infection’s timing is unclear.
The newness of this virus means it’s simply too early to tell, Adams Waldorf notes, but she hopes her work will offer more definitive findings in the future.
Should I change my birth plan due to the coronavirus?
With social distancing, you might be wondering what that means for your labor and delivery.
Switching to a home birth might seem appealing, but giving birth outside of the hospital can bring other risks. For example, in the United States, newborn mortality rates are higher after a home birth than after a hospital birth.
To make hospitals safer for delivering mothers during the pandemic, many healthcare organizations have implemented mandatory COVID-19 testing and new visitor policies. With these additional protections in place, you can still consider hospitals a safe place to deliver your baby during the coronavirus crisis.
What happens if I have COVID-19 when I give birth?
Hospitals around the country have instituted new safety policies during the pandemic.
“If you have tested positive or have COVID-19 symptoms, we have brought together experts in high-risk obstetrics, infectious disease, pediatrics, and anesthesia to provide you with the safest delivery possible,” Cheng says.
After birth, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend separating newborns and moms who exhibit symptoms to prevent potential transmission. Although this is difficult and frightening, separating yourself from your newborn is one of the main ways to reduce your baby’s risk of becoming infected with the coronavirus.
Once your symptoms are gone, and your doctor clears you, you and your baby can be reunited again.
The World Health Organization (WHO), on the other hand, does not yet recommend separating moms and babies. Instead, the WHO suggests practicing infection prevention measures, such as wearing a mask and practicing proper hand hygiene, when caring for your newborn.
Each organization offers a different approach, so talk with your maternity care team to see what’s best for you and your baby.
“This decision should be made after discussion with your obstetrical and pediatric team,” Cheng says.
Is it safe to breastfeed my baby if I have COVID-19?
The CDC, AAP, and WHO all support giving breastmilk to newborns, whenever possible.
If you have COVID-19 and decide to remain with your baby, Cheng encourages families to follow appropriate infection control and prevention measures. This includes washing your hands thoroughly before picking up your baby and wearing a mask and gloves.
If you do decide to separate, consider pumping and bottle-feeding expressed breastmilk, which can still benefit your baby. After you come out of isolation and can be reunited with your baby, you may be able to breastfeed directly.
How does social distancing apply to pregnant women and newborns?
The less exposure you have to other people, the better.
Friends and relatives who don’t already live with you should refrain from visiting you in person during your pregnancy unless you are all practicing social distancing and wearing masks. And while your loved ones may be excited to meet your newest addition after your baby is born, it may be safer to coordinate virtual or physically-distanced visits for the time being.
The bottom line
With all the uncertainty that the coronavirus brings, it’s understandable to feel anxious or overwhelmed. Taking extra precautions can help reduce your risk, and arming yourself with the facts can help you feel more prepared for what’s to come.
Looking for further resources and want to learn more?
- Pregnancy, Birth, and Caring for Your Baby with Suspected or Confirmed COVID-19 (Washington State Department of Health-PDF)
- Breastfeeding during COVID-19 (Healthy Children)
- Considerations for Inpatient Obstetric Healthcare Settings (CDC)
- Questions and Answers on Pregnancy, Childbirth, and COVID-19 (WHO)
- Coronavirus updates from University of Washington
About the Author
Angela Cabotaje is a writer for Right as Rain, a digital publication which provides health and wellness news, tips and information, brought to you by the experts at UW Medicine.