The act of breastfeeding -- the holding, the closeness, the skin contact -- does not appear to pass on COVID-19 to newborns, says a new study. The journal The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health said that if mothers follow correct hygienic practices, they are unlikely to pass the disease to their infant. Mothers or soon-to-be moms who were worried that the act of nursing could pass on the virus needn't do so, said the clinical researchers.

Researchers looked at 116 mothers who were diagnosed with COVID-19, in 3 hospitals in New York City. Some were symptomatic two weeks before they gave birth but had no symptoms during delivery. Others had symptoms during labor or within a week of the birth.

After delivery the mothers could make routine skin-to-skin physical contact and breastfeed their newborns, if they chose to do so. While not every baby could stay in their mother's room because of space limitations, those who did were kept in isolettes (enclosed cribs) placed 6 feet away from the mothers' bed until they needed feeding. All women who nursed did so after washing their hands, performing breast cleansing, and wearing surgical masks while handling the baby and nursing.

No Newborns Tested Positive

None of the breastfed newborns born to COVID-positive mothers tested positive for the infection. The babies were tested 24 hours after birth and again 5 to 7 days later. Most of the babies were tested a third time after two weeks.

A month later, the researchers contacted the mothers via telemedicine. Again, none of the babies had symptoms of COVID-19. “Our data suggest that perinatal transmission of COVID-19 is unlikely to occur if correct hygiene precautions are undertaken, and that allowing [newborns] to room with their mothers and direct breastfeeding are safe procedures when paired with effective parental education of infant protective strategies,” the authors wrote in the paper.

CDC’s Criteria for Isolating Infected Mothers

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the virus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, is not common in newborns. Yet there isn't enough evidence about viral transmission during pregnancy for experts to say if it’s a major risk to infants. However, when infants do test positive, the infection is generally asymptomatic (no symptoms) and mild, the CDC says.

So, experts can't make firm recommendations about infant care yet. But the CDC recommends using caution when it comes to contact between COVID-19 positive mothers and their babies. For instance, mothers can stop isolating themselves 10 days after symptoms have subsided or 20 days after critical complications caused by COVID-19 have passed. They can resume normal "motherhood" tasks when they haven't had a fever for at least 24 hours and their symptoms are no longer severe.

These findings are vastly different from the recommendations for mothers with other types of infectious diseases. Women with HIV and untreated tuberculosis are often discouraged from breastfeeding, for example. However, mothers with seasonal influenza and COVID-19 can continue breastfeeding. That being said, while mothers are still positive for the virus, they should avoid being too close to their baby otherwise until they are no longer ill.