Medical experts weigh in on study showing benefits of COVID-19 vaccine for pregnant mothers, newborns

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The pictures show a happy mom and a healthy baby, but Sarah Cross says before her daughter Sophie was born, she had concerns about the growing pandemic.

"I’m going to admit, I was afraid. I was afraid before my delivery," she says. "I was afraid the hospital was going to be chaotic, that it was going to be some kind of mayhem, and maybe there wasn’t even going to be a doctor who was well enough to do my delivery."

Cross says none of that happened.

Her daughter, Sophie, was born without any complications on April 20, 2020, at M Health Fairview’s Masonic Children’s Hospital at the University of Minnesota.

Cross — a medical doctor — is the hospital’s birthplace medical director. She says Sophie spent her first night with just her mom and dad.

"I always joke, ‘She’s a year old now but younger than COVID,’" Cross said. "It was a very different experience. In some ways, it was kind of nice. We had that one night in the hospital. It was very quiet. Nobody came to visit us."

In one year, she says so much has changed for expecting mothers and newborns.

"We just know so much more than we knew a year ago at this time," Cross says. "COVID is still here but it’s really very manageable levels. We have treatment for it, we have the vaccine. We have lots of safety data about the vaccine and pregnancy."

In just the past week, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a report with good news for pregnant mothers and newborns.

"I think the big headline is that the vaccine for COVID works just as well to provide antibodies as other vaccines we’ve known about, like mumps and measles," said Dr. Donald Wothe, an Allina Health maternal fetal medicine physician.

The JAMA study says the Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines produce high levels of neutralizing antibodies that block the coronavirus from entering cells.

Wothe says the vaccines help in two ways that benefit both moms and unborn babies.

"What happens is the mom’s immune system, it reacts to the immunization and makes antibodies," he explains. "And it also primes some of her own cells that will attack the virus. It does that by going to the placenta, and the placenta actually has a way of transferring those antibodies into the baby’s bloodstream."

Wothe says those antibodies in a newborn baby can last as long as six months.

He says the study also found vaccinated moms can also pass those protective antibodies through breastfeeding.

Study: COVID-19 vaccines safe and effective for pregnant, lactating women

"The antibodies that mom has in her blood get sorted out into breast milk," Wothe says. "And then go into the baby through the breast milk and get absorbed into the intestines."

But when is the best time to get the vaccine?

Wothe says there are several recommended options, including any time after the first trimester, when he says most of the structural development of a baby takes place.

He adds a mother-to-be doesn’t necessarily have to wait.

"What I would suggest is if you’re thinking of becoming pregnant, or starting a family, that you get the COVID vaccine even before you start the family. That seems to be very safe," Wothe says. "So as long as mom has finished her vaccinations at least a couple of weeks before the baby is born, the baby will have the benefit of those antibodies."

Cross says a secondary benefit for a mom getting vaccinated is not only for her own health but for her baby’s as well.

"It’s very reassuring, the data that’s coming out suggesting there is immunity passed to the baby, to the fetus," Cross says. "I’d say the best time for the mom to get the vaccine is as soon as she can. I would not recommend that she delay it in order to protect the baby because the best thing for her to do is to protect herself."

Wothe says the JAMA study also revealed how effective the vaccines are at generating antibodies.

"Turns out the moms that got immunized made about five times as much antibody as the moms that had had COVID," he said. "Then they passed it on to the baby in kind of similar increased amounts."

As we near the end of the pandemic, Cross says many COVID safety protocols at Masonic Children’s Hospital won’t immediately change.

M Health Fairview says moms will still get tests, that masks are still required, that the number of visitors is limited, and there’s a separate entrance for moms and families.

"Most hospitals have visitor restrictions in place, though things are starting to loosen up a bit, now that people are getting vaccinated," Cross says. "Most places are still testing everybody, so women are getting tested on admission for COVID."

Recalling her own experience, she wants to reassure pregnant moms that they are in good hands at the hospital.

"The hospital is a safe place, most people, a lot of people have been vaccinated themselves," Cross says. "It was just the three of us, it was our little kind of our golden time. I’m feeling a lot more optimistic than I was before."