COVID-19 and preterm birth: What do we know?

More research is needed on how COVID-19 affects pregnant people. But pregnant people have a higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19 compared to non-pregnant people. Some research also shows that pregnant people with COVID-19 may be at higher risk for pregnancy problems, like preterm birth.

Preterm babies

Preterm birth is a birth that happens before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Preterm babies may not be fully developed at birth. They may have more health problems and may need to stay in the hospital longer than babies born later. Some may have breathing problems because their lungs are not fully developed.

Can COVID-19 increase the risk of preterm birth?

Each year, about 1 in 10 babies (10 percent) in the United States is preterm. This rate may be higher in pregnant people with COVID-19:

  • In a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study of 445 births in 600 pregnant people with COVID-19, 12.6 percent were preterm births. In this study, preterm births were three times more likely in pregnant people with COVID-19 who had symptoms compared to pregnant people with COVID-19 who had no symptoms.
  • In another CDC study of 3,912 babies born to pregnant people with COVID-19, 12.9 percent were preterm births.

While additional research is needed, it is important for pregnant people to know that the risk for severe outcomes due to COVID-19 is higher when compared to non-pregnant people. Therefore, be sure to  protect yourself from COVID-19 and other infections that can increase the risk of having a preterm birth. These infections include the flu (also called influenza). Pregnant people who get the flu are more likely to have preterm labor and preterm birth. When you follow COVID-19 safety and social distancing recommendations, you are also protecting yourself from the flu.

But remember, getting the flu shot during pregnancy is the best way to protect you and your baby from the flu!

Protect yourself from COVID-19

Practice COVID-19 safety and social distancing recommendations:

  • Wash your hands often. Use soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If you can’t use soap and water, use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
  • Limit contact with other people as much as possible.
  • If you need to go out or interact with others:
    • Wear a cloth face cover or a facemask over your nose and mouth.
    • Keep at least 6 feet away from others.
    • Stay away from people who are not wearing a mask.
    • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Every day, clean and disinfect surfaces you frequently touch. 
  • Avoid activities that make safety measures and social distancing difficult. For example, try ordering takeout food instead of going to a restaurant. Try staying connected to friends and family in creative ways, like with video calls, instead of going to a party. Some pregnant people even have had baby showers using video conferencing instead of in person during the pandemic.

If you have COVID-19 when giving birth, can your baby get infected?

Babies can become infected with COVID-19 during childbirth or by being exposed to someone with the virus after birth. But infections due to COVID-19 are not common in newborns born to people with COVID-19.

Research shows that only a small number of babies (about 2 percent to 5 percent) born to people with COVID-19 near the time of delivery test positive for the virus in the days after birth. It may be hard to tell if newborns infected with COVID-19 got the virus before birth, during birth or after birth from close contact with an infected person.

Can preterm babies be at higher risk for serious illness if they get COVID-19?

Yes. Some data shows that babies who may be more likely to have serious illness from COVID-19 include:

  • Babies age 1 and under
  • Preterm babies
  • Babies who have other medical conditions, like a lung condition or heart disease

How can you protect your preterm baby from COVID-19 in the NICU?

Some preterm babies need to stay in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) for special care. Learn how to protect your baby from COVID-19 in the NICU.

Learn more about COVID-19 and pregnancy.