Newborns at very low risk of contracting COVID-19 from infected moms – new study suggests

Doctor holding test tube in a laboratory.
Doctor holding test tube in a laboratory.
R Franca/ Getty Images

A recent study has revealed that infected mothers who take basic safety precautions will rarely pass the coronavirus to their newborns, even when breastfeeding.

The study - conducted by researchers at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center and NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital - also suggests that extensive measures such as separating COVID-19 infected moms from their newborns were not necessary.

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The research, published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, examined outcomes in the first 101 newborns born to COVID-19-positive mothers at the NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital in the US from March 13 to April 24, 2020.

“Our findings should reassure expectant mothers with COVID-19 that basic infection-control measures during and after childbirth — such as wearing a mask and engaging in breast and hand hygiene when holding or breastfeeding a baby — protected newborns from infection in this series,” said Cynthia Gyamfi-Bannerman, co-author of the study from Columbia University Irving Medical Center in the US.

Reducing the risk of transmitting the virus to newborns after delivery

To reduce the risk of transmitting the SARS-CoV-2 virus to newborns after delivery, the researchers said the hospital staff practiced social distancing, wore masks, and placed COVID-positive moms in private rooms. They said the hospitals also provided the mothers with educational materials about COVID-19 and shortened hospital stays for those without complications from delivery.

Most of the newborns were roomed with their mothers, even during the first postpartum checkup. (Some were admitted to the newborn intensive care unit for non-COVID-related health reasons.)

Infants who roomed with their moms were placed in protective cribs six feet away from the mothers' beds when resting. Direct breastfeeding and skin-to-skin contact with babies were strongly encouraged, provided the moms wore masks and washed hands and breasts with soap and water.

"During the pandemic, we continued to do what we normally do to promote bonding and development in healthy newborns, while taking a few extra precautions to minimise the risk of exposure to the virus," says Gyamfi-Bannerman.

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Only two of the newborns tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 but had no clinical evidence of illness (the researchers were unable to pinpoint how the babies became infected). Physicians followed up with about half of the infants, including the two that tested positive for the virus, during the first two weeks of life, and all remained healthy.

According to the researchers, the interim guidelines released by paediatric and health organisations for pregnant women with the coronavirus recommends the separation of mothers and newborns during their hospital stay - no direct breastfeeding, and bathing newborns as soon as possible. However, they said these recommendations were made in the absence of data on rates of mother-to-newborn transmission of the virus.

The scientists said these guidelines are based on experience with mother-to-newborn transmission of other infectious diseases. “Some of the recommendations conflict with what we know about the developmental benefits of early breastfeeding and skin-to-skin contact,” said study lead author Dani Dumitriu from the Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons in the US.

“Our study shows that these measures may not be necessary for healthy newborns with COVID-positive moms,” Dumitriu said.

The researchers believe it is particularly important that mothers with COVID-19 have the opportunity to directly breastfeed their newborns.

*The information is not intended to replace medical advice offered by physicians. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified healthcare providers with any questions regarding a medical condition or general medical advice. 

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