COVID-19 during pregnancy could cause health issues for babies, study suggests

Previous research has indicated that pregnant women with COVID-19 may be at a greater risk for common pregnancy complications. 

But the latest findings from researchers found that those complications that have already been documented to cause problems for mothers, could lead to further complications among children. 

According to a study published in January in the journal Nature Communications, children born to mothers who were infected with COVID-19 during pregnancy reported "unusually high rates" of respiratory distress at birth or shortly after. 

Study authors noted that respiratory distress is defined as having at least two out of these four symptoms: slow breathing, pale or bluish skin, flaring nostrils or a retraction of the chest with each breath. 

Researchers analyzed data from 221 pregnant women with COVID-19 with babies born In the United States between April 2020 and August 2022. None of the infants in the study tested positive for COVID-19 at birth. 

Approximately 17% of the babies reported some form of respiratory distress, and 3% of COVID-19-exposed fetuses resulted in miscarriage, abortion or fetal demise.

The percentage of COVID-19-infected babies born with respiratory distress was higher than the average among newborns, which is estimated at up to 7%, according to a separate study published in 2013 in the journal Paediatric Respiratory Reviews.

COVID-19 and pregnancy

Complications during any pregnancy are common, including the development of high blood pressure or having other infections beyond COVID-19. And while the overall risks are low, it’s also known that pregnant individuals are at an increased risk for severe COVID-19, compared to non-pregnant women.

In a separate study published in 2022 led by maternal-fetal medicine specialist Dr. Torri Metz at the University of Utah, researchers found that pregnant individuals with COVID-19 were overall more likely to develop serious complications or die during pregnancy than those who weren’t infected.

Metz said the research adds how "people who have SARS-CoV-2 really are at an increased risk of having those common complications progress to something more that can be life-threatening or really serious morbidity."

Mild or asymptomatic infection was not significantly associated with increased pregnancy risks.

The researchers analyzed medical records of more than 14,000 pregnant individuals treated at 17 hospitals across the U.S. About 2,350 of these women tested positive for COVID-19 during pregnancy or within six weeks of delivery. The data was collected between March 1, 2020, and Dec. 31, 2020 — before the widespread availability of vaccination, some treatments and before the delta variant took hold.

"We don’t know well how the different variants are affecting the risks," Metz said in a Q&A in February 2022, noting how the majority of the study involves data collected prior to the emergence of the delta variant and long before the omicron strain. 

"I think future certainly work could also look at the different variants, how those different variants specifically affect the pregnancy and the placenta to really get at this in more detail," Metz added.

Kelly Hayes contributed to this story.