SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is new and relatively volatile in its viral evolution. For mothers of newborns, it’s been particularly nerve-wracking as hospital efforts to prevent spread have often meant the forced separation of mothers and newborn babies as a cautionary measure. Now, new research shows that mothers with SARS-CoV-2 infections rarely transmit the virus to their newly born babies when basic hygiene and infection control practices are used.
Research from Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center and NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital shows that the risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission from mothers and their newly born babies is minimal, and that intensive practices like separating COVID-19 positive moms from their babies to avoid direct breastfeeding may be unwarranted.
In a study published this week in JAMA Pediatrics, the researchers shared that the study’s findings should reassure expectant COVID-19 positive mothers that if they practice basic hygiene and infection-control measures during labor and after their baby is born, their newborns are most likely still protected from infection. The infection-control measures the team suggests include wearing a mask and engaging in hand and breast hygiene when they’re holding or nursing their baby.
Dr. Cynthia Gyamfi-Bannerman is a maternal-fetal medicine expert at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, and a senior author of the research. She said that during this pandemic time, doctors continued to do what was normally done to promote bonding and development in healthy newborns, but they also took a few extra safety precautions to minimize virus risk exposure. Hospital staff practiced social distancing and wore masks, as well as placed COVID-positive mothers in private rooms. The mothers were given educational materials about COVID-19 and all mothers who didn’t have complications from delivery were allowed shorter hospital stays.
The research team looked at the outcomes from the first 101 newborns born to COVID-19 positive mothers at New York-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital or New York-Presbyterian Allen Hospital. These babies were born between March 13 and April 24, 2020–a critical and peak time of virus outbreak in the area.
Most of the newly born babies roomed in with their mothers, though some were admitted to NICU for non-COVID-related health issues. Infants who stayed with their mothers were put in protective cribs at least six feet away from their mother’s bed when resting. The mothers were strongly encouraged to have skin-to-skin contact and directly breastfeed, but suggested to do so while wearing masks and washing hands and breasts with soap and water before doing so.
Of the 101 babies, only two of the newborns tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 but were asymptomatic. It’s unknown how they became infected, as none were born positive. Doctors followed up with almost half of the babies born, including the two who tested positive during their first two weeks, and none showed symptoms or fared poorly in health.
During this pandemic, several pediatric and health organizations have endorsed policies that would separate mothers and newborns while in the hospital, as well as prevent them from breastfeeding directly and insisting on immediate baths for newborns.
Dr. Dani Dumitriu is a lead author of the study and an assistant professor of pediatrics in psychiatry at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons as well as a pediatric newborn hospitalist in the Division of Child and Adolescent Health at NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital. Dr. Dumitriu says those guidelines that recommended separation and no direct breastfeeding were made in absence of data that looked at transmission rates from mother to newborn and were based on experience with mother-newborn transmission data from other infectious diseases. Those recommendations blatantly contradict what is also known about the healthy developmental benefits for newborns with regard to skin-to-skin contact and direct nursing and Dr. Dumitriu believes these measures may not be necessary for healthy newborns born to COVID-positive moms.
In fact, Dr. Gyamfi-Bannerman says that it’s particularly important for those mothers to directly breastfeed their newborns, as breast milk is known to protect newborns against so many pathogens, and quite possibly, against infection with SARS-CoV-2. Dr. Gyamfi-Bannerman says that in most studies, SARS-CoV-2 has not been found in breast milk, and that breast milk has even been found to contain antibodies against the virus.
You don’t say? Mama milk protecting newborns? Who’d have thought it?
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