If you have a baby or are about to have a baby, it’s understandable to be nervous about the coronavirus. The virus and the respiratory disease it causes, COVID-19, have dominated headlines, making it hard to think about anything else.
Of course, part of being a parent is worrying about your baby, even when we’re not facing a global pandemic, and it’s only natural to wonder how COVID-19 could affect your little one.
Here’s what the coronavirus means for your baby, and what you can do to keep your family safe.
What is the coronavirus?
There are seven different types of coronaviruses known to infect humans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Many are mild and cause colds, but some forms of the virus, specifically MERS-CoV, SARS-CoV and 2019-nCoV (aka COVID-19) can lead to severe illness.
On March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.
How are babies affected by the coronavirus?
Coronaviruses, including COVID-19, usually spread from an infected person to other people via respiratory drops that get into the air by coughing or sneezing, the CDC says. Close contact with an infected person, like touching or shaking hands, or touching a surface that has been contaminated with the virus and then touching your mouth, nose or eyes before you wash your hands can also spread the virus, the organization says.
Health experts are still learning about COVID-19, but people who have had confirmed cases have experienced the following symptoms, according to the CDC:
- Shortness of breath
The symptoms seem to be similar for both babies and adults. However, babies tend to have more mild symptoms that are similar to what you’d see with the common cold, says Annmarie Golioto, M.D., a neonatologist at Connecticut Children’s. This can include:
- Runny nose
- Gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea
Symptoms can appear anywhere from two to 14 days after a person has been exposed.
What does the coronavirus mean for your baby?
In general, babies with COVID-19 seem to do better compared to people in other age groups, experts say.
Still, the data is “limited” and based on reports coming out of countries that were impacted by the virus early, like China, Dr. Golioto says. In most reports from China, children have had exposure to a household member with confirmed COVID-19.
“Fortunately, pediatric patients appear to be less severely impacted than the adult population,” she says. “However, it appears that infants under 1 year of age have a higher likelihood of being severely or critically ill compared to older children.”
A new study published in the medical journal Pediatrics analyzed data from more than 2,100 children in China who contracted the coronavirus. About 4 percent of the children studied had no symptoms, 51 percent had mild illness and 39 percent had a moderate illness. Around 6 percent had severe or critical illness, compared to 18.5 percent of adults. Infants had higher rates of severe illness than older children.
The researchers weren’t entirely sure why children generally felt better than adults after contracting COVID-19, but theorized that it may be because children have fewer opportunities for exposure, higher levels of antibodies against viruses or different responses from their developing immune systems.
“Early reports are reassuring, but mostly limited to case series with small groups of patients,” says Justin S. Brandt, M.D., an assistant professor in the Division of Maternal-Fetal Medicine at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.
Can babies spread the coronavirus to other people?
“Babies and children seem to have a less severe course of illness but they can transmit the virus to others,” says Rajeev Fernando, M.D., an infectious disease expert in Southampton, New York and member of the What to Expect Medical Review Board.
Experts are still learning about how children and babies spread COVID-19. However, in a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) webinar held last week, experts said it is possible that children may shed the COVID-19 virus for longer than adults.
Can the coronavirus affect unborn babies?
Right now, experts don’t believe that the coronavirus can pass from a mother with confirmed COVID-19 to her unborn baby (a process called vertical transmission) but more information is still needed.
A small study published in Frontiers in Pediatrics suggested that moms-to-be may not pass the virus to their babies in utero. In the study, four pregnant women in Wuhan who had tested positive for COVID-19 were followed, and three provided consent for their babies to be tested for the virus. Of the three, none tested positive for COVID-19, and all four babies were well when they left the hospital.
According to the CDC, there have been a few case reports of preterm birth among babies whose mothers had COVID-19 — but it’s unclear whether the coronavirus was the cause. Earlier this month, a newborn born to a mother in the U.K. with COVID-19 tested positive, but again, it’s unclear if the baby was born with the virus or contracted it shortly after birth.
If a mother has COVID-19, can she still breastfeed?
So far, health experts seem to think that breastfeeding is fine, even if a mother has COVID-19. “We have not seen evidence of infection in amniotic fluid and breast milk,” Dr. Brandt says.
The CDC notes that breast milk can help protect babies against many illnesses. The organization currently recommends that mothers who test positive for COVID-19 take steps to protect their infant from the virus, such as washing their hands before feeding or caring for baby and wearing a face mask while breastfeeding.
If you’re pumping, the CDC recommends that you clean your breast pump properly each time and consider letting someone else feed the expressed milk to your baby.
Is it still safe to go outside with your baby?
“It is not recommended that adults or children participate in any unnecessary travel at this time,” Dr. Golioto says. “Infant travel should be limited to medical appointments.” So, if you need groceries or medication and you’re able to leave your baby at home with a partner or caregiver, it’s best to do so.
That said, you don’t need to stay cooped up indoors with your baby 24/7. “It is acceptable for parents to be outside with their children in the vicinity of the home for fresh air when the weather allows,” Dr. Golioto says.
Ultimately, though, it’s really best to keep your baby home as much as possible. “I’m an advocate for aggressive social distancing,” Dr. Fernando says.
How can parents of babies prepare for coronavirus?
News about the coronavirus can make you feel helpless. But there are a few steps you can take to keep your family safe:
- Practice good hand hygiene. You’ve heard it time and time again, but wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
- Follow social distancing guidelines. It’s crucial to follow the advice of the CDC and your local government and practice social distancing, Dr. Golioto says. “The child should stay home with a healthy caregiver as much as possible and avoid contact with anyone who is ill or at risk,” she says.
- Stock up. You don’t need to go overboard, but it is a good idea to have supplies for your baby in your home to last for “at least” a few weeks, Dr. Golioto says. “People need food, common medicines including Tylenol, thermometers and other common household items such as soap, toilet paper and washing detergent,” Dr. Brandt says. Making sure you have a solid supply of diapers and wipes is also important.
- Order in. If there are delivery options in your area, order in rather than bring your baby to the grocery store or pharmacy. “When possible, patients should take advantage of delivery services rather than going to markets and other stores where people may congregate,” Dr. Brandt says.
- Cancel play dates. It’s a good idea to halt play dates for now. “Avoid unnecessary interactions,” Dr. Fernando says. That includes trips to the playground, since the coronavirus can linger on surfaces.
- Keep baby’s gear clean. In addition to cleaning high-touch surfaces in your home, clean your child’s toys and gear with warm water, particularly plush toys, says the CDC.
There’s a lot going on in the world right now, but Dr. Golioto stresses that you should do your best to remain calm.
“Parents should not panic, but do need to understand that it is imperative to follow the recommendations to the best of their ability in order to save lives through decreasing the impact of this disease across our population,” she says.