By Lorrie Harris Sagaribay, MPH, MotherToBaby North Carolina & Kirstie Perrotta, MPH, MotherToBaby California
As the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 continues to spread, pregnant and breastfeeding women are understandably concerned. Many of your recent calls, chats, texts, and emails to MotherToBaby have been about the virus itself and how it might affect a developing baby or breastfed infant (more about that on our COVID-19 fact sheet). But we’re also hearing related concerns about how to stay safe and healthy while pregnant or breastfeeding during the pandemic. Here, we answer some of the most common questions we’re getting during this uncertain time:
Can I use supplements to boost my immunity?
We’re receiving even more inquiries than usual about using supplements such as elderberry, zinc, and vitamin C to “boost immunity.” Unfortunately, there is no good data to suggest that these supplements have a protective effect against coronavirus. Additionally, the use of supplements in pregnancy and lactation comes with potential concerns.
The first concern is the lack of regulation. Dietary supplements do not require the same oversight by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as medications do, which means that supplement manufacturers do not have to prove the safety and effectiveness of their products before they hit the shelves. Supplements may be contaminated with other ingredients (such as prescription medications or lead), and differences may be found between the amount or ingredient listed on the label and what is actually in the product.
The second concern about supplements is that usually they are not well studied for use in pregnancy and lactation. Without good research, we just don’t know how something like elderberry might affect a developing baby or breastfed infant. Mega-doses of any vitamin (like the 1000 mg of vitamin C commonly found in some supplements) are of particular concern as they are much higher than what is recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding women in a single day. Generally speaking, if you are eating a healthy diet and taking a prenatal vitamin, you are probably covering all your vitamin and mineral needs. Taking additional supplements might present increased risks to your pregnancy or your breastfed baby, with no clear evidence that they would effectively boost your immunity. You can read more on our Herbal Products Fact Sheet.
Are cleaning products safe for me and my baby?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend cleaning and disinfecting high-touch surfaces as one way to help prevent exposure to the virus. This means wiping down doorknobs, light switches, desks, faucets, electronics, and more… but does all this exposure to cleaning products increase risks to a pregnancy or a breastfed baby?
Our previous Baby Blog on household cleaners explains that when you use cleaning products as directed, the actual exposure to your developing baby or breastfed infant is likely to be quite low. Even if you can smell the fumes, brief inhalation while cleaning generally won’t allow for much absorption of these kinds of compounds into your blood. Likewise, your skin is a surprisingly good barrier that prevents significant absorption of cleaning products through the skin. Any chemicals that might get into your blood through inhalation or skin contact typically won’t reach the developing baby or get into your breastmilk in any meaningful quantity. Working in a ventilated area and wearing gloves when using cleaning products can further reduce your exposure, and help prevent respiratory and skin irritation. And of course, wash your hands after cleaning.
Should I still go to my prenatal appointments?
You’ve read you should stay home as much as possible since this virus can spread easily from person to person. This is true, but your prenatal appointments are still important! These visits are vital opportunities for your provider to assess the health of your pregnancy and identify any issues that might affect you or your developing baby. Some healthcare providers are offering some appointments virtually (over the internet) or spreading out the time between appointments a bit longer than normal. But sometimes you will have be seen in person, especially for screenings, labs, and vaccines, such as the flu shot and Tdap vaccine that help protect both mom and baby against serious illness.
If you haven’t already, talk to your pregnancy care provider about any changes to your upcoming appointments. For virtual visits, ask what technology (phone, laptop, etc.) you will need to connect with your provider, and write down a list of questions so you don’t forget to ask anything. Just like a regular appointment, it can be helpful to have someone “come along” virtually to help make sure all your concerns are addressed. For in-person visits, your provider may ask that you come alone (no partner, no kids). While there, try to stay at least 6 feet away from other patients in the waiting room, wear a cloth face cover, and don’t forget to wash your hands! For more prevention tips, check out guidance from the CDC here.
Why have they delayed my fertility procedure?
Many kinds of medical procedures are being put on hold as a way to help prevent the spread of coronavirus and reserve essential medical supplies for critical medical care. For this reason, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine has made the difficult decision to suspend initiation of new treatment cycles (intrauterine insemination or IUI and in vitro fertilization or IVF) for the time being. We completely empathize with anyone who gets this news. When you’ve been trying to get pregnant and each passing month feels like another missed opportunity, a setback like this is the last thing you want. During this difficult but necessary delay, make sure to continue practicing healthy habits like staying active, avoiding alcohol, and taking a prenatal vitamin with at least 400 mcg of folic acid every day. That way, you’ll be ready to go once you get the green light that IUI and IVF treatments are back on.
I still have to go to work every day. What can I do to avoid getting COVID-19?
If you aren’t able to work from home, you might be worried that going in to work could increase your chance of contact with the virus. How true this is might depend on your job situation. If you have contact with the public at work and you are pregnant or breastfeeding, you could talk to your employer about being temporarily reassigned to another role that limits your contact with other people. However, not every workplace will be able to accommodate this request. CDC workplace recommendations for everyone include strategies such as not shaking hands, wiping down frequently-touched surfaces, limiting in-person meetings, maintaining at least 6 feet of distance between you and people with whom you need to interact, not sharing food, and of course, staying home if you are sick. In addition, CDC guidelines recommend wearing a cloth face covering when you may be near other people to help reduce the spread of the virus.
If you are a pregnant healthcare worker, be sure your employer knows you are pregnant before you provide any direct patient care to a person with confirmed or suspected COVID-19. When possible, and depending on staffing needs, management should consider limiting your exposure to these patients. This is especially true if you perform procedures with a higher chance of coming into contact with a patient’s respiratory droplets (such as intubation). If you do provide care to a patient with confirmed or suspected COVID-19, be sure to follow the Infection Control guidelines for all healthcare personnel. Our fact sheet on Reproductive Hazards of the Workplace can answer additional questions about staying safe at work during pregnancy and while breastfeeding.
I’m stressed! Can this affect my pregnancy?
With the constant news stream about the pandemic, it can be tough not to feel anxious or depressed during this time. Plus, social distancing means that many women are separated from their support network of friends and family members. Add in trying to work from home with a partner and/or kids, and it’s easy to see why many women are feeling stressed out! We discussed mental health and COVID-19 at length in our recent podcast episode, which you can listen to here.
One big takeaway from the podcast? Some studies suggest that ongoing stress and uncontrolled depression or anxiety during pregnancy can increase the chance of outcomes such as preterm birth and low birth weight. So, if you feel like your mental health is suffering because of this pandemic, we encourage you to reach out to your healthcare provider (maybe virtually!) to figure out the best approach for treatment. Some women can benefit from making simple changes in their daily habits (like watching less news and getting more fresh air), while others might need to use a medication to help manage their symptoms. If that’s the case, MotherToBaby can share with you what is known about your particular antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication in pregnancy and/or lactation.
Whatever your concerns about COVID-19 or other exposures might be, please know that MotherToBaby is here for you with evidence-based answers. Please reach out to us with your questions. We’re all in this together.
Lorrie Harris-Sagaribay, MPH (MotherToBaby North Carolina) and Kirstie Perrotta, MPH (MotherToBaby California) are teratogen information specialists at their respective MotherToBaby affiliates. Lorrie and Kirstie previously provided leadership on the MotherToBaby Zika Task Force, and now serve as the organization’s response team for COVID-19.
MotherToBaby is a service of the Organization of Teratology Information Specialists (OTIS), suggested resources by many agencies including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If you have questions about exposures during pregnancy and breastfeeding, please call MotherToBaby toll-FREE at 866-626-6847 or try out MotherToBaby’s new text information service by texting questions to (855) 999-3525. You can also visit MotherToBaby.org to browse a library of fact sheets about dozens of viruses, medications, vaccines, alcohol, diseases, or other exposures during pregnancy and breastfeeding or connect with all of our resources by downloading the new MotherToBaby free app, available on Android and iOS markets.