When New Moms Have COVID-19

Do the risks of separation outweigh the benefits when trying to avoid SARS-CoV-2 with a new baby?

Breaking News – The AAP has updated their guidance on newborns whose mothers have suspected or confirmed COVID-19. (see below)

Most of us are getting used to the idea of social distancing, staying home to flatten the curve, and the need to enter isolation if we actually get sick with COVID-19.

Isolation separates sick people with a quarantinable communicable disease from people who are not sick.”

Legal Authorities for Isolation and Quarantine

In most cases, even if you are in a home with other people, isolation is doable, as you just stay in your own room and keep away from everyone else.

When New Moms Have COVID-19

What about if a parent develops COVID-19?

Should they stay away from their kids?

Well, yeah. It might seem extreme, but you don’t want to intentionally get your kids sick!

Even if you just had a baby?

“It was devastating when they wheeled in the incubator. It hadn’t occurred to me they would even suggest it.”

New Mom who was treated as a PUI for COVID-19

That’s a tough one!

After all, we know that separating a newborn from their mother has consequences, just as there is a risk that a baby could get infected with SARS-CoV-2 if their mom has it.

The idea isn’t new though.

“If the mother has tuberculosis disease, the infant should be evaluated for congenital tuberculosis (see Congenital Tuberculosis, p 848), and the mother should be tested for HIV infection. The mother and the infant should be separated until the mother has been evaluated and, if tuberculosis disease is suspected, until the mother and infant are receiving appropriate antituberculosis therapy, the mother wears a mask, and the mother understands and is willing to adhere to infection-control measures.”

Tuberculosis – RedBook 31st Edition

We already recommend separating newborns from their mothers if they have active tuberculosis disease.

“The optimal length of temporary separation in the hospital has not been established, and will need to be assessed on a case-by-case basis after considering factors to balance the risk of mother-to-infant influenza virus transmission versus maintaining maternal-infant bonding.”

CDC on Influenza Guidance Prevention & Control in Peri- and Postpartum Settings

And if a mother “is ill with suspected or confirmed influenza,” which is another good reason to get your flu shot if you are pregnant!

“Mother-to-child transmission of coronavirus during pregnancy is unlikely, but after birth a newborn is susceptible to person-to-person spread.”

COVID-19 on Pregnancy and Breastfeeding

So what should you do?

Surprisingly, in this case, the answer depends on who you ask and where you live…

“The determination of whether or not to separate a mother with known or suspected COVID-19 and her infant should be made on a case-by-case basis using shared decision-making between the mother and the clinical team.”

CDC on Considerations for Inpatient Obstetric Healthcare Settings

The guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mentions the “risks and benefits of temporary separation of a mother with known or suspected COVID-19 and her infant,” and offers tips on what to do if separation is not undertaken.

What are the risks of separation?

Well, they don’t actually list any of them, but you might expect them to include:

  • trouble breastfeeding, especially if you are having to pump and someone else is feeding your baby formula or expressed breastmilk with a bottle instead of a supplemental nursing system
  • an increased risk for postpartum depression, especially as a recent stressful event, having inadequate social supports (social distancing makes getting help, even when you have a new baby, hard), and trouble breastfeeding are all risk factors for PPD. In this case, both COVID-19 and the separation would be stressful events that could put a new mother at increased risk for PPD.
  • having difficulty bonding with your baby once you get reunited, especially if it is a long separation

If you are going to make an informed decision, in addition to understanding the risks about your baby developing COVID-19, which can certainly be more severe in newborns and infants, it is important to know the risks of trying to avoid it.

Fortunately, any kind of separation for babies is typically brief.

Not surprisingly, the advice from the American Academy of Pediatrics seems more concrete.

“While difficult, temporary separation of mother and newborn will minimize the risk of postnatal infant infection from maternal respiratory secretions.”

AAP on INITIAL GUIDANCE: Management of Infants Born to Mothers with COVID-19

The INITIAL GUIDANCE from the AAP recommended separation and then, after hospital discharge, that mother’s with COVID-19 “maintain a distance of at least 6 feet from the newborn, and when in closer proximity use a mask and hand-hygiene for newborn care until (a) she is afebrile for 72 hours without use of antipyretics, and (b) at least 7 days have passed since symptoms first appeared.”

“Other caregivers in the home who remain under observation for development of COVID-19 should use standard procedural masks and hand hygiene when within 6 feet of the newborn until their status is resolved.”

AAP on INITIAL GUIDANCE: Management of Infants Born to Mothers with COVID-19

They have since updated that guidance, and while they still recommend separation as the “safest course of action,” because it is a controversial issue and separation has downsides, they now offer guidelines on what to do if mom chooses to room in with her baby.

They still advocate testing newborns if a mother is positive at about 24 hours of age, with repeat testing at 48 hours if the first test was negative.

In parts of the world where clean water is not guaranteed, exclusive breastfeeding might be essential to a baby’s survival. Did that influence the WHO’s guidance?

The advice from the World Health Organization is very different though!

They do not recommend any type of separation.

“Considering the benefits of breastfeeding and the insignificant role of breastmilk in the transmission of other respiratory viruses, the mother can continue breastfeeding, while applying all the necessary precautions.

For symptomatic mothers well enough to breastfeed, this includes wearing a mask when near a child (including during feeding), washing hands before and after contact with the child (including feeding), and cleaning/disinfecting contaminated surfaces – as should be done in all cases where anyone with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 interacts with others, including children.

If a mother is too ill, she should be encouraged to express milk and give it to the child via a clean cup and/or spoon – all while following the same infection prevention methods.”

UNICEF on Coronavirus disease (COVID-19): What parents should know

It is important to note that the WHO isn’t saying that you don’t have to take any precautions! Respiratory hygiene typically includes wearing a mask, as you can see described in the above recommendations from UNICEF, etc.

What about the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG)?

“To reduce the risk of transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19 from the mother to the newborn, facilities should consider temporarily separating (eg, separate rooms) the mother who has confirmed COVID-19 or is a PUI from her baby until the mother’s transmission-based precautions are discontinued.”

ACOG Novel Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) Practice Advisory

They also recommend separation.

“Mothers with suspected or proven COVID-19 and their infants should not be completely separated. Mothers and infants should be allowed to remain together, after potential risks and benefits of rooming-in have been discussed and allowing for shared decision-making with families and their health care providers. There is some evidence to suggest that infants can be infected with SARS-CoV-2 postnatally.”

Canadian Paediatric Society on Breastfeeding when mothers have suspected or proven COVID-19

In contrast, pediatricians in Canada do not recommend separation!

“Mothers can practice skin-to-skin care and breastfeed while in hospital with some modifications to usual processes. Among the precautions, mothers should don a surgical/procedure mask when near their infant and practice proper hand hygiene before skin-to-skin contact, breastfeeding and routine baby care. Mother and baby should be discharged home as soon as they are deemed ready and then convalesce at home with guidance from the hospital.”

Canadian Paediatric Society on Breastfeeding when mothers have suspected or proven COVID-19

Like the WHO, they simply recommend advanced hygiene.

“If the mother has COVID-19, there may be more worry, but it is still reasonable to choose to breastfeed and provide expressed milk for her infant. Limiting the infant’s exposure via respiratory secretions may require more careful adherence to the recommendations depending on the mother’s illness.”

ABM Statement on Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19)

It is important to note though that all organizations recommend continued breastfeeding, or at the very least that babies get expressed breastmilk if they are not able to actually nurse if separated from their mothers.

“SARS-CoV-2 has not been detected in breast milk to date.”

AAP on INITIAL GUIDANCE: Management of Infants Born to Mothers with COVID-19

Confused?

“One must weigh the risk of the newborn getting severe COVID-19 infection, which is rare but likely finite, with the risk of undermining the establishment of breastfeeding and the consequences of breastfeeding failure, which can be significant, particularly in low-income settings. Failure to establish breastfeeding could put the newborn at risk of food insecurity and other infections.”

COVID-19: Separating Infected Mothers from Newborns: Weighing the Risks and Benefits

What’s going to happen if you have a baby and you test positive for COVID-19?


UWMC Infant Care Guidelines for COVID-19

You will talk to your health care providers, who will help you make the best decision for you and your baby.

And know that both hospitals and your pediatric provider are well equipped to keep you and your baby safe from SARS-CoV-2.

More on When New Moms Have COVID-19

Can You Skip Your Newborn Baby’s Eye Ointment?

Do all babies have to get antibiotic ointment on their eyes, even if you are sure that you don’t have an infection yourself?

A lot of what happens in the delivery room and newborn nursery once your baby is born is routine.

Tragically, skipping some of this routine care, from a RhoGAM shot to the vitamin K shot and hepatitis B vaccine, is becoming standard for some anxious parents.

Some even want to skip getting the antibiotic ointment that is placed on their baby’s eyes that can help prevent ophthalmia neonatorum, which can lead to blindness.

Ophthalmia Neonatorum

Since we don’t usually think of pink eye (conjunctivitis) as a serious disease, it is likely hard to imagine that neonatal conjunctivitis (ophthalmia neonatorum) could lead to blindness. It does though – or did.

Ophthalmia neonatorum due to Gonococcus infection.
Ophthalmia neonatorum due to Gonococcus infection. (Photo by Murray McGavin CC BY 2.0)

The main cause was Neisseria gonorrhoeae, a sexually transmitted infection that could be passed to a baby when they were born. Similarly, Chlamydia trachomatis can cause ophthalmia neonatorum.

That ophthalmia neonatorum could be prevented was first discovered by a German gynecologist in 1881. Dr. Carl Siegmund Franz Credé instilled a drop of silver nitrate into a newborn’s eyes immediately after they were born and this greatly decreased the rates of infections in babies born in his hospital.

Today, erythromycin ophthalmic ointment and povidone-iodine have largely replaced the use of silver nitrate for preventing ophthalmia neonatorum, but it works on the same principle – killing any bacteria that might cause neonatal conjunctivitis, especially those that cause blindness.

Can You Skip Your Newborn Baby’s Eye Ointment?

Why skip a treatment that can prevent your baby from getting an infection that can lead to blindness?

Gonococcal ophthalmia neonatorum caused by a maternally transmitted gonococcal infection.
Gonococcal ophthalmia neonatorum caused by a maternally transmitted gonococcal infection. (Photo by CDC/ J. Pledger)

Since ophthalmia neonatorum is generally caused by gonorrhoea and chlamydia, most parents who think about skipping their baby’s eye ointment are likely fairly confident that they don’t have one of these sexually transmitted infections. And most of them will likely be right.

In fact, some countries, including Australia, the UK, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden, have stopped routine ophthalmia neonatorum prophylaxis. Some just treat those babies who are at high risk for infections, especially if they didn’t receive prenatal care or have a maternal history of STIs, etc.

In the United States, routine use of erythromycin 0.5% ophthalmic ointment within 24 hours of a baby’s birth for the prevention of ophthalmia neonatorum is still the standard of care. In fact, it is required by law in many states.

What are some of the issues to consider when thinking about skipping your baby’s eye ointment?

  • the incidence of gonorrhoea and chlamydia have been increasing in recent years and it is very possible to have these STDs without obvious symptoms
  • up to 30 to 50% of babies born to a mother with gonorrhoea or chlamydia will get neonatal conjunctivitis, even if they had a cesarean section
  • not all pregnant women are routinely tested for gonorrhoea and chlamydia
  • ophthalmia neonatorum caused by gonorrhoea or chlamydia can very quickly lead to permanent scarring and blindness
  • ophthalmia neonatorum caused by gonorrhoea or chlamydia is not as easy to treat as routine pink eye, often requiring hospitalization and systemic antibiotics
  • gonorrhoea and chlamydia aren’t the only bacteria that can cause severe neonatal conjunctivitis

Most importantly, if you are thinking about skipping your baby’s eye ointment, know that places that routinely stopped using eye ointment to prevent ophthalmia neonatorum often  saw an increased incidence of gonococcal ophthalmia, while rates remain very low in the United States.

“The annual figures for ON reported during the study period, under statutory health protection regulations, underestimated the actual occurrence of this disease by a very substantial amount.”

Dharmasena on Time trends in ophthalmia neonatorum and dacryocystitis of the newborn in England, 2000–2011: database study

And you are likely to get worried every time your baby has a little eye discharge or redness, just like parents who skip vaccines worry when their child has a fever or cough.

Since the eye ointment that is used is safe (erythromycin doesn’t cause the irritation that silver nitrate used to in the old days), why take the risk of an infection that can lead to blindness?

What to Know About Skipping Your Baby’s Eye Ointment

The use of erythromycin eye ointment after your baby is born can help to prevent a serious infection that can lead to blindness. Don’t skip it.

More on Skipping Your Baby’s Eye Ointment