Needless to say, the last ten months have been a time of unprecedented stress for everyone, but especially for pregnant women and mothers of young children. Most of these mothers I know, myself included, often think about and plan for the future. But COVID-19 has upended the best-laid plans and replaced them with daily uncertainty for months.
As an obstetrician and mother of two little boys, I worried not only about the future, but also about the impact of COVID-19 on pregnancies, deliveries, infants and families. I have also heard these concerns from my patients. Am I more at risk? Is my baby more at risk? Is it safe to deliver to a hospital? When will this be over?
Now my patients are asking me about the COVID vaccine. Is it safe to get vaccinated while trying to conceive? Pregnant ? While breastfeeding?
With at least two vaccines now available for healthcare workers and other at-risk populations, pregnant and breastfeeding women have a ton of questions! Naturally, mothers want to avoid any disease that might render them unable to care for their children, even if the disease only affects them for a limited time.
Because I am a physician treating patients, I had the opportunity to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, completing my second dose in early January. It was thankfully a very streamlined process driven by the hospital where I work, and I feel so lucky to have been able to receive my first dose within the first week of vaccinations in the United States. With both doses, my arm was sore, but I did. I didn’t experience any other side effects, and my 11 month old breastfed baby was also unaffected (although I hope he got antibodies!).
As the vaccine becomes more and more accessible to the general population, I wanted to share the facts who helped me choose to be vaccinated as a nursing mother and healthcare professional.
1. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are mRNA vaccines, which means that no COVID-19 virus is introduced into your system when you receive the vaccine.
Although pregnant and breastfeeding women were excluded from these trials, there is no reason to believe that the vaccines are harmful. mRNA vaccines teach your white blood cells to recognize the infamous spike shape of the COVID-19 virus so your immune system can defend against the virus if you become infected. It is impossible to get COVID-19 from these vaccines, and research currently suggests that they also protect against the newer, more contagious strain of COVID-19!
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recently recommended that vaccines be made available to breastfeeding and pregnant members of priority groups (healthcare workers, essential workers, people with other high-risk conditions), and the World Health Organization recently recommended that the Moderna vaccine be made available to breastfeeding and pregnant members of priority groups.
2. Breastfeeding can transmit antibodies, and potentially immunity, moms to babies.
We know that breastfeeding confers important protection against other diseases, so scientists hope this will be the case with COVID-19 as well! There are several registries currently collecting information from women who are breastfeeding and getting vaccinated, so more data should become available in the future.
3. The most commonly reported side effects of the vaccine are mild — and much milder than the effects of COVID-19!
According to the CDC, common side effects include pain and swelling in the arm at the vaccination site, as well as chills, fatigue, headache and fever for a few days after vaccination. Personally, I only felt a little pain in my arm, although I was so grateful to have been vaccinated that I would have tolerated the other symptoms as well.
If you are pregnant and considering getting vaccinated, remember that you can always talk to your provider about your personal COVID-19 situation and your risks versus benefits. Questions to consider could be:
- Do you have any additional comorbidities that make you even more vulnerable to severe COVID-19 infection?
- Are you able to socially distance at home and at work?
- Are cases increasing in your community?
The decision to get vaccinated should be made on a case-by-case basis between you, your family, and your provider. However, please be aware that while most provider practices would like to be able to offer one of these vaccines to their patients, this is not widely feasible at this time and we do not know when this will be the case.
For anyone lucky enough to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, it’s important to note that this doesn’t mean you can “go back to normal.” The first vaccine injection does not confer complete immunization (even after the second vaccine, immunity is neither immediate nor 100%), and scientists do not yet know if vaccinated people can still transmit the virus to others or how long the protection conferred by the vaccine.
I continue to social distance as much as possible! Until we achieve herd immunity, the best ways to protect ourselves and our loved ones are to wear masks, wash hands and avoid socializing indoors. That said, I sleep better at night and worry a little less after my second shot, which is good enough!
2020 has been a year of unprecedented uncertainty, confusion and stress, but also family time, resilience and scientific progress (yay vaccines!). As vaccines are distributed to everyone, including pregnant and breastfeeding women, I truly believe our future is brighter.
[Editor’s note: This story was told to Motherly, and represents one person’s decision. When making decisions about your health, always consult with your provider.]