If you have a baby or are about to have a baby, it’s understandable to be worried about the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 and the disease it causes, COVID-19. Part of being a parent is worrying about your baby, even when you’re not living during a global pandemic. It’s only natural to be concerned about how COVID-19 could affect your little one, especially now that the Omicron variant has taken hold.
Research about the coronavirus and its impact on babies and young children is ongoing, but here’s what experts know right now about COVID-19, and what you can do to keep your family safe.
What are the symptoms of COVID-19 in babies and children?
Symptoms of COVID-19 may include:
- Shortness of breath
- New loss of taste or smell
- Muscle pain
- Sore throat
- Congestion or runny nose
The symptoms seem to be similar for both babies and adults. However, babies tend to have more mild symptoms. They can include:
- Runny nose
- Gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea
Symptoms can appear anywhere from two to 14 days after a person has been exposed. It’s also possible not to show any symptoms.
Children ages 5 to 17 who are unvaccinated should quarantine for at least five days after coming into close contact with someone with COVID-19 and then get tested, the CDC advises.
Everyone with presumed or confirmed COVID-19 should isolate from other people for at least five full days and then wear a mask around others for an additional five days, regardless of vaccination status.
Coronaviruses, including COVID-19, usually spread from an infected person to other people via respiratory droplets that get into the air by coughing or sneezing. 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 may also spread the virus, but it’s not thought to be the main way COVID-19 spreads, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says.
Is COVID-19 dangerous for babies and young children?
In general, babies and children seem to do better compared to people in other age groups, experts say.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 cases in the U.S. increasingly include children. Recent data from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) shows that the number of new child COVID-19 cases remains “exceptionally high,” and states have reported more than 100,000 new pediatric cases weekly for several months in a row.
Children as a whole have recently accounted for about a quarter of new COVID-19 cases, the AAP reports.
A research review published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood in July 2021, which analyzed multiple studies from around the world, found that 14 to 42 percent of children with COVID-19 didn’t have any symptoms. Among those who were showing symptoms, fever and cough were the most common ones, appearing in about 40 to 60 percent of children.
Sadly, some children have died of COVID-19. This accounts for under 0.3 percent of the total death rate. In May, a study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics looked at 48 cases of children with confirmed COVID-19 in intensive care units in the U.S. Of the 48 patients, most (40) had preexisting medical conditions, 18 needed to be placed on ventilators and two died. The study reiterates that COVID-19 can be severe in younger populations, but luckily, most babies and children seem to have mild forms of the virus.
Should parents be worried about pediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C)?
In rare cases, some children have developed a severe syndrome called pediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C) — in which different body parts (including the heart, lungs and kidneys) become inflamed — that seems to be linked to COVID-19.
Research about MIS-C is ongoing, but current information suggests it has to do with a child’s immune response to COVID-19. Symptoms can include fever, rash, eye irritation, swollen hands or feet and belly pain.
MIS-C appears to be rare, but it’s still important to know the symptoms (and call your pediatrician right away if your child develops any of them).
Can babies spread COVID-19 to other people?
Experts are still learning about the role children play in the transmission of the virus. However, young children can still spread COVID-19.
One study of households in Tennessee and Wisconsin found when children under the age of 12 tested positive for COVID-19, about half of the people living in the household later became infected with the virus.
Can COVID-19 affect unborn babies?
Research on COVID-19 is still ongoing, but the CDC says it’s not overly common that the virus can pass from a mother with confirmed COVID-19 to her unborn baby (a process known as vertical transmission).
Data from the national Perinatal COVID-19 Registry has shown that about 2 percent of infants born to women who test positive for SARS-CoV-2 near the time they give birth have tested positive in the first 24 to 96 hours after birth. Infection rates from case studies across the country and world have found that infection rates can range from zero to 12 percent in infants born to women who test positive for COVID-19 at delivery.
Pregnant women with COVID-19 also have an increased risk of preterm birth. CDC data show that pregnant women with COVID-19 are more likely to give birth to their baby before 37 weeks, and may be more likely to have other negative outcomes related to her pregnancy compared to people without the virus. (All of which make it critical for pregnant women to get the COVID-19 vaccine.)
If a mother has COVID-19, can she still breastfeed?
In June, the CDC released updated guidelines for breastfeeding mothers and health care providers caring for them.
The CDC notes that breast milk can help protect babies against many illnesses. The AAP points to several published studies that have detected SARS-CoV-2 nucleic acid in breast milk. However, the AAP stresses, viable infectious virus — meaning, the part of the virus that could make a baby sick — has not been detected in breast milk.
The CDC currently recommends the following for breastfeeding mothers with suspected, probable or confirmed COVID-19:
- Breastfeeding mothers should wash their hands using soap and water before touching their baby.
- If breastfeeding mothers do not have soap and water available to them, they should use hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol.
- Breastfeeding mothers should wear a mask while nursing.
- Mothers should practice good hand hygiene when expressing breast milk.
- If possible, consider letting expressed breast milk be bottle-fed to the baby by a healthy caregiver who is fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
- If a breastfeeding mother tests positive for COVID-19, her baby should be considered as having suspected COVID-19 for the purposes of infection control and remain isolated at home for 14 days.
- If the breastfeeding mother requires lactation services that cannot be done virtually, the lactation provider should follow recommended infection prevention and control measures, and wear personal protective equipment (PPE).
The CDC acknowledges that breastfeeding mothers who work in high-risk settings likely have additional concerns. Because these moms are at greater risk of being exposed to COVID-19, the organization recommends that breastfeeding mothers who work in health care or other such settings follow the guidelines above. Their employers should ideally provide a private space where they can pump at work.
Can babies and children get the COVID-19 vaccine?
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine — one of the three COVID-19 vaccines that has been approved by the FDA — is currently available for kids ages 5 and 18 under an emergency use authorization (EUA). Clinical trials have showed that the vaccine is safe and effective for children and teenagers.
Pfizer-BioNTech and other two vaccines — Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — are also authorized for adults aged 18 and older.
Although there are still unknowns, younger children will likely begin to receive the COVID-19 vaccine at some point in 2022.
How can parents keep babies safe during the pandemic?
Parenting during the COVID-19 pandemic can make you feel helpless. But there are a few steps you can take to keep your family safe:
- Get vaccinated against COVID-19. All eligible members of a household (including pregnant women) should get vaccinated against COVID-19 and receive their booster shots to protect themselves and younger family members who cannot yet get vaccinated.
- 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. (If soap and water aren’t available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol.)
- Practice social distancing. Avoid close contact with people who are sick, and stay at least 6 feet away from other people outside your home.
- Wear a mask in indoor public spaces. Children under 2 should not wear face masks because of suffocation concerns.