Dealing with COVID-19 concerns has been a way of life for families for almost two years. But with the rapid rise of the highly infectious Omicron variant — particularly in kids — it’s understandable to have new questions and concerns about what to do if your baby or child develops symptoms of the virus. After all, can babies even be tested for COVID?
If you suspect that your baby has developed COVID-19, you don’t have to be left guessing — there are a few things you can do to get some answers. And, if you’re not in that situation at the moment, it’s still good to know what is and isn’t a possibility for your family when it comes to COVID testing. Here’s a breakdown.
Can babies be tested for COVID?
Yes, babies can be tested for COVID-19. “Babies can be tested right from birth,” says Sunanda Gaur, M.D., professor of pediatrics at the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey. “Even premature babies are routinely tested when they are born to a COVID-positive mother.”
Mayuri Morker, M.D., a pediatrician at Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital in Illinois, points out that “there is no age limit for COVID testing.” So if you want or need to get your child tested, there’s no overall restriction that should keep you from doing so.
How are babies tested for COVID?
There are several types of COVID-19 tests available, but the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) largely breaks them down into two groups:
- Molecular tests (aka PCR tests): This test looks for COVID-19’s genetic material, and the most popular form is the polymerase chain reaction test (aka PCR test). This is considered the gold standard of COVID-19 testing. Most PCR tests involve taking a sample from the patient and sending it to a lab for analysis. Results can sometimes take a few to several days, though they can be ready much faster now.
- Antigen tests (aka rapid tests): Also known as rapid tests, antigen tests look for specific proteins from SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. These tests can be done in a doctor’s office, hospital or testing facility, as well as at home, with results available in minutes. However, though these tests have improved in accuracy since the start of the pandemic, they sometimes have a higher risk of producing false results (mostly in the form of false negatives).
As for the right type of test for infants, it depends.
“While a rapid test may be used, it can be difficult for parents to accurately administer it and some rapid tests are not as accurate with the Omicron variant,” says Jennifer Schwab, M.D., a pediatrician at Connecticut Children’s Care Network and Rocky Hill Pediatrics in Connecticut, and chief of the Division of Community Pediatrics at the University of Connecticut.
Many at-home rapid tests have a minimum age requirement for use as well. The popular BinaxNOW at-home COVID test, for example, along with most other at-home rapid tests, recommend using the kit only on those who are at least 2 years old.
Meaning that it’s really best to work with your doctor or a medical professional to get your infant tested. “Babies are tested the same way as everyone else, with a nasal sample,” Dr. Morker says. “It can be rapid or PCR, ideally performed at a testing site or doctor’s office.” Many pediatric practices also do throat swabs if that method is preferred.
Your baby’s health care provider will guide you on the type of test your infant should receive. “We generally use a rapid test if a baby has been exposed to a family member [with COVID-19] and has symptoms,” Dr. Schwab says. “If they have no symptoms, we recommend a PCR on day five.”
Can kids get tested for COVID?
Yes, kids of other ages can get tested for COVID-19, although doctors generally recommend consulting with your pediatrician about the process.
“If you’re ever concerned about COVID-19 in your child, you can certainly start by calling your pediatrician,” says Rosemary Olivero, M.D., a pediatric infectious disease physician at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Michigan. “Your doctor’s office can help you find the fastest and easiest way to get testing done.”
Your pediatrician will also help provide guidance on what type of testing is best for your child (meaning PCR or rapid) and when to test your little one, given that testing accuracy can vary depending on how long it’s been since exposure or the onset of symptoms, Dr. Morker says.
Where to get kids tested for COVID
You have several options when it comes to COVID-19 testing for kids, although your child’s age may play a role.
- Your doctor’s office. Experts recommend this option the most. “Pediatricians’ [offices] are the best place to test babies,” Dr. Schwab says. “We can also examine them and check for other reasons for fever, such as an ear infection or pneumonia.” It also can be “tricky” to get a test swab into a smaller child or infant’s nose, she says, but the health care workers at a pediatrician’s office are skilled at this.
- Your local testing site. You can likely have your child tested at a local testing site, regardless of how old the baby or little one is. “Most testing sites will be able to test all ages,” Dr. Morker says. It’s a good idea to call in advance, though, to make sure.
- Your local urgent care center. Many urgent care centers provide testing for children under the age of 3, Dr. Gaur says. Call in advance to ask.
- Your local pharmacy. A number of pharmacies offer COVID-19 testing, but there are age minimums. CVS and Walgreens, for example, require that people be at least 3 years old to get tested. If you’re interested in visiting your local pharmacy for testing, it’s a good idea to call ahead of time about their age policy.
- At home. If your child is older, you may want to test him at home with a rapid antigen test. However, keep in mind that it can be tricky to get an accurate sample. You’ll also want to read the directions to make sure your child meets the minimum age requirement for the test before administering it.
Tips to make COVID testing easier
There are a few things you can do to make the process of COVID testing on kids easier, including:
- Talk to your child or kids about testing. If your child is old enough to understand (usually by age 2 or 3), Dr. Olivero recommends talking to him about exactly what type of test will be done. Sharing how he can deal with the discomfort can also help, she says. “Some older children will really appreciate fine detail, such as, ‘You will need to swirl the swab in each side of your nose five times,’ and other children just want to know that they won’t be hurt,” Dr. Olivero says.
- Be honest about how it will feel. “Being firm and gentle with your child but honest is always the best strategy,” says Dr. Schwab. For example: “This will feel weird for a few seconds, but I will hold your hand and this is important for us to do.”
- Get yourself tested first. It’s rare for pediatricians to treat adults (and therefore unlikely you can do this at your pediatrician’s office). But if you’re getting your child tested at a testing site or pharmacy, Dr. Olivero suggests that you get swabbed as well “to model appropriate behavior” and to help your child see that “it’s not dangerous or harmful.”
- Explain why you’re doing the testing. ”Explain the importance of the exam, how it will help determine what is making the child sick and/or how it can help prevent spreading of illnesses,” Dr. Morker says. “Testing may also help them return to school faster and in a safe manner.”
- Promise a reward. You know what motivates your child better than anyone. Promising a special treat can help encourage him to get tested. “Some promised bribe afterwards never hurts,” says Dr. Gaur.