The COVID-19 pandemic is a stressful situation for everyone. For pregnant women, there’s an extra layer of anxiety. How will the illness affect their baby and birth?
The Stress of the Unknown
The virus is new and there are a lot of unknowns. But “currently available data does not indicate that pregnant women are at increased risk for contracting COVID-19,” says Dr. Laura Finger, an OB/GYN with Caring for Women, whose doctors deliver babies at Medical City Lewisville and Medical City Frisco.
“However, pregnant women who contract respiratory infections are known to be at greater risk for complications, such as needing a ventilator or oxygen supplementation.”
Finger explains that the increased risk of respiratory illness complications is likely due to the physiologic changes a woman goes through during pregnancy—including increased workload and fluid volume on pregnant women’s heart and lungs.
Dr. Elizabeth Stevenson-Gargiulo with Baylor Scott & White Park Lane OB/GYN Associates in Dallas concurs that current evidence indicates pregnant women are not more susceptible to getting the virus compared to anyone else.
“While pregnant women do have a higher risk of respiratory complications, so far the limited literature regarding COVID in pregnancy shows that pregnant patients with infections are not more prone to developing pneumonia,” says Stevenson-Gargiulo. “It’s a novel virus, though, so there’s a lot we don’t know. We really won’t have a full picture until this pandemic is over and researchers have an opportunity to analyze all the data.”
Follow the CDC and WHO’s Rules
Stevenson-Gargiulo and Finger both advise patients to follow the general health and safety measures advocated by the CDC and WHO.
At this time, those measures include social isolation, frequent and thorough handwashing, staying away from anyone who is sick, sanitizing surfaces and avoiding touching one’s face. Pregnant women should continue taking their prenatal vitamins and drinking increased amounts of water.
Safe exercise is also important. “Even during social isolation, I encourage patients to go outside, walk around the neighborhood and get moderate exercise,” notes Finger.
If you do come down with COVID-19 during pregnancy, symptoms are similar to those in non-pregnant adults (including dry cough, fatigue, fever and shortness of breath). “At this time, there are no specific recommendations or changes in care for the evaluation or management of COVID-19 in pregnant women,” says Finger, though she adds that your OB/GYN or midwife may make changes in your obstetric appointments in light of the situation.
What About Mother-To-Baby Transmission?
Also, there is no evidence of mother-to-baby transmission of COVID-19 when the mother is infected in the third trimester (though it is possible for infants to get the virus after birth). Stevenson-Gargiulo adds that at Baylor Scott & White, a pregnant patient who tests positive will be admitted to an isolation room, even if they’re not ready for labor.
But at this point, it’s difficult to say how a COVID-19 infection could impact your delivery. Stevenson-Gargiulo shares that in a study of pregnant women in China with COVID-19, six of the nine women who delivered had C-sections. “We aren’t sure why and if that had anything to do with their infection,” Stevenson-Gargiulo says.
There’s also the question of preterm births. “There were some reports of preterm births among the mothers in China, but it’s not clear that those outcomes are related to maternal infection,” states Finger.
Impact In Other Areas
And the potential impacts aren’t just physical—they can be emotional too.
Due to the pandemic, some hospitals and birthing centers across the country are limiting the number of support partners allowed to accompany moms-to-be during labor. (So be sure to check with your hospital or birthing center about current guidelines.)
There also are protocols for interaction between mom and baby. “If you have a confirmed case of COVID-19, you should separate yourself from your baby for 14 days,” advises Stevenson-Gargiulo. “And if you don’t separate yourself, you should wear protective gear when feeding and holding your baby.”
If you do give birth while infected, keep in mind that the virus has not been found in amniotic fluid, cord blood or breast milk. “Breastfeeding is encouraged,” says Finger, “and is a potentially important source of antibody protection for the infant.”
Obviously, this is a lot to process—and doctors are aware of that. “Having practiced through the swine flu pandemic and Ebola, I can say this is a much crazier time,” says Stevenson-Gargiulo. “I’m hopeful that all of the recent cancellations will help prevent the hospitals from being overwhelmed.”
What’s Most Important
So here’s the bottom line for pregnant women: Try to not let stress and anxiety take over.
“While this is unsettling for many people around the world, don’t let the current events steal all your joy from your pregnancy,” says Finger. “Doctors and hospitals are working very hard to keep moms and babies safe.”
Need some tips for managing stress and anxiety during the pandemic? Check out our conversation with Paula Miltenberger, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist.
Image courtesy of iStock.