When COVID-19 started spreading in the United States, some hospitals separated moms who tested positive from their newborns in the hopes that the babies would be protected from contracting it. But a new study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that babies can breastfeed and stay with COVID-19-positive moms without an increased risk of contracting the virus.
“Most of us believed that it was the right thing to do — keeping mom and baby together was the right thing to do. Breastfeeding was the right thing to do,” Dr. Cynthia Gyamfi-Bannerman, an OB-GYN and maternal fetal medicine specialist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, told TODAY. “We encourage the moms to wear masks, wash their hands and clean their breasts before breastfeeding.”
Gyamfi-Bannerman, an author of the retrospective analysis, said the researchers looked at 101 babies born to COVID-19-positive moms in New York City when it was the epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic in the United States. At the time, experts didn’t understand as much about the virus as they do now. Still, the hospital where she worked never separated newborns from women with COVID-19 infection. Instead doctors encouraged hand washing, mask wearing and breast feeding after “appropriate hygiene.” Of the 101 newborns, the study found there was no “clinical evidence” of mom transmitting the virus to baby, what’s known as vertical transmission.
“We’re not saying there’s no vertical transmission or that it’s impossible,” she said. “For the majority of women, they should at least be reassured that they don’t need to be separated from their babies. The likelihood of transmission in that setting with proper precautions — masks, hand and breast hygiene — is pretty low.”
This means mom and baby don’t have to spend baby’s first days in two different rooms, which can be detrimental to baby’s development and their budding relationship.
“Data such as this are in line with what our real world experience has been,” Dr. Hyagriv Simhan, a professor in the department of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive science at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, who did not participate in the study, told TODAY. “It helps us understand that maternal newborn contact in general can be accomplished in a safe manner, which is great — and should be reassuring to moms.”
Close contact between a mother and newborn is important for bolstering the connection between the two and can lead to more success in breastfeeding.
“The emotional and physical benefits of maternal-newborn contact are numerous in terms of emotional connection in the beginning of parenting,” Simhan said. “It’s important for facilitating breastfeeding.”
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The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ shared its policy, which was updated in August, with TODAY. The policy also recommends keeping mother and baby together, but acknowledges there might be cases where separating them might be best:
"Given the available evidence on this topic, mother-infant dyads where the mother has suspected or confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection should ideally room in according to usual facility policy. Although data is still emerging and long-term effects are not yet fully understood, data suggests that there is no difference in risk of SARS-CoV2 infection to the neonate whether a neonate is cared for in a separate room or remains in the mother's room.
Importantly, any determination of whether to keep individuals with known or suspected SARS-CoV-2 infection and their infants together or separate after birth should include a process of shared decision-making with the patient, their family, and the clinical team."
Simhan also hopes these findings assuage fears expecting mothers might feel when undergoing COVID-19 testing prior to delivery.
“If a woman would have been identified as positive based on a test even though she had no symptoms … There might have been a recommendation for separation and that's a real disincentive to finding out,” he said. “So removing that admonition by allowing contact maternally does provide some reassurance.