[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.]
I don't need to tell you that the last ten months have been a time of unprecedented stress for everyone, but especially for pregnant women and mothers with young kids. Most of these mothers I know, myself included, often think about and plan for the future. But COVID-19 upended the best-laid plans and replaced them with daily uncertainty for months on end.
As a working Ob-Gyn and mom to two little boys, I worried not only about the future, but also about COVID-19's impact on pregnancies, childbirth, infants and families. I heard these worries from my patients too. Am I at higher risk? Is my baby at higher risk? Is it safe to deliver in a hospital? When will this be over?
Now, my patients ask me questions about the COVID vaccine. Is it safe to get the vaccine while trying to conceive? While pregnant? While breastfeeding?
With at least two vaccines now becoming available to health care workers and other at-risk populations, there are a ton of questions from pregnant and breastfeeding women! Mothers, understandably, want to avoid any illness that may result in them being unable to care for their children, even if the illness may only affect them for a limited time.
Because I am a doctor seeing patients, I had the opportunity to get 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 fortunate that I was able to get my first dose during the first week of vaccinations in the U.S. With both doses, my arm felt sore, but I did not experience any other side effects, and my breastfed 11-month-old was unaffected as well (though I hope he got some antibody benefit!).
As the vaccine becomes more widely available to the general population, I wanted to share the facts that helped me choose to get vaccinated as a breastfeeding mom and a medical professional.
1. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are mRNA vaccines, which means no COVID-19 virus is introduced into your system when you get the vaccine.
Though pregnant and breastfeeding women were excluded from these trials, there is no reason to think that the vaccines are harmful. The mRNA vaccines teach your white blood cells how to recognize the COVID-19 virus' infamous spiked shape so that 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 protect against the new, more contagious strain of COVID-19 as well!
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recently recommended that vaccinations 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 pass antibodies, and potentially immunity, from moms to babies.
We know that breastfeeding confers important protection from other diseases, so scientists are hopeful this will be the case with COVID-19 as well! There are several registries gathering information right now from women who are breastfeeding and undergoing vaccination, so more data should be 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 where the vaccination occurs, as well as chills, tiredness, headache and fever for a few days after the vaccination. I personally only experienced a bit of soreness in my arm, though I am so thankful to have been vaccinated that I would have happily tolerated the other symptoms as well.
If you are pregnant and considering getting the vaccine, please remember you can always talk to your provider about your individual COVID-19 situation and your risks versus benefits. Questions to consider might be:
- Do you have additional comorbidities that make you even more vulnerable to a severe COVID-19 infection?
- Are you able to socially distance at home and work?
- Are cases spiking in your community?
The decision for you to get vaccinated should be made on a case-by-case basis between you, your family and your provider. However, please know that although most providers' offices wish they could offer their patients one of these vaccines, this is not widely feasible at this time and we do not know when it will be.
For anyone fortunate enough to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, it is important to note that that doesn't mean that you can go "back to normal." The first vaccine shot does not confer complete immunization (even after the second shot, 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 protection conferred by the vaccine will last.
I am continuing to social distance as much as possible! Until we reach herd immunity, the best ways to protect ourselves and our loved ones are to wear masks, wash our hands and avoid socializing indoors. That being said, I am sleeping better at night and worrying a little less after my second shot, which is something!
2020 was a year of unprecedented uncertainty, confusion and stress—but also family time, resilience and scientific progress (yay vaccines!). As the vaccines roll out to everyone, including pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, I truly believe our future is brighter.