Can babies get COVID-19? What are the most common symptoms? Here, we answer your top questions on keeping infants safe during the pandemic.

By Nicole Harris
April 23, 2021
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Parents and Crying Baby At Home
Credit: Uber Images/Shutterstock

One year into the coronavirus pandemic, experts have learned a great deal about the respiratory illness that's infected millions of Americans. Parents can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that COVID-19 mostly spares children, but as it turns out, babies might not have the same level of protection. 

Indeed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), "babies under 1 year old might be more likely to have severe illness from COVID-19" than older children. You can blame their still-developing immune system and their smaller airways. 

There hasn't been too much research on the matter, but a World Health Organization (WHO)-China Joint Mission report on the coronavirus, published in mid-February 2020, sheds some light on the vulnerability of infants. The report involved 2,143 pediatric patients, and it concluded that the proportion of severe and critical cases was 10.6 percent for infants under 1 and 7.3 percent for kids ages 1 to 5, compared to 3 percent for 15- to 18-year-olds. 

A report from the CDC, released in April 2020, backs up these claims. Researchers studied about 2,500 COVID-19 cases in children 18 and under. They found that children generally had milder symptoms than adults—but infants didn't fare quite as well. Among 95 infants in the study, 59 of them (62 percent) were hospitalized. Five of these infants were admitted to the ICU. In comparison, less than 14 percent of children ages 1 to 17 were admitted to the hospital. 

Before you panic, though, note that the majority of American infants get mild COVID-19 cases—and many of them have asymptomatic presentations with no symptoms whatsoever. Also, current research and data suggests that most babies recover without any long-lasting side effects or complications.  

Staying informed is key to keeping your family safe, so we've compiled a guide to COVID-19 in babies and newborns. Keep reading to learn more about coronavirus symptoms, prevention methods, and more.

COVID-19 Symptoms in Babies 

According to the CDC, those under 1 may be more likely to suffer from severe coronavirus infection than older kids. Even so, many American infants have asymptomatic or mild cases.

Baby COVID-19 symptoms might include: 

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Runny nose
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Breathing difficulties or rapid breathing
  • Decreased feeding
  • Lethargy
  • Sore throat
  • Changes in behavior

These symptoms usually show up within two to 14 days of exposure to the virus. Babies with symptomatic COVID-19 usually get better within two weeks, but if they experience any complications, the road to recovery could be a bit longer.

COVID-19 Complications in Babies

There's no way to determine how your baby will react to the coronavirus. They could be asymptomatic, get mild symptoms that resemble a common cold, or have severe complications that result in hospitalization or death (although this is rare). 

That said, the CDC reports "neonates with underlying medical conditions and preterm infants (less than 37 weeks gestational age) may be at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19." Underlying conditions might include congenital heart disease; genetic, neurologic, and metabolic problems; and more.

The COVID-19 complications seen in babies have also been spotted in older children—respiratory failure, organ failure, heart failure, shock, hypoxia, and more. While these complications aren't very common, you should let your doctor know right away if you're worried about them.

Asymptomatic COVID-19 in Babies

Based on research and studies, many babies have been shown to be asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19. But while asymptomatic presentation is a relief for parents, it leads to another issue: Babies might unknowingly spread the coronavirus to their caregivers. 

Take this case in Singapore published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, which involves a 6-month-old baby. After a mother and nanny were hospitalized with pneumonia—and the father came down with a fever and sore throat—hospital staff found the baby had high levels of the coronavirus in his "throat, blood, and stool," according to the Los Angeles Times. The baby was asymptomatic, which caused the coronavirus to spread easily to caregivers. He didn't develop any symptoms during a subsequent hospital stay (with the exception of a very short-lived fever).

These "silent cases" could help spread the coronavirus even further, which is particularly worrisome for grandparents and caregivers with compromised immune systems.

My Baby Has COVID-19 Symptoms: Now What?

The protocol for COVID-19 infection depends on the situation. For example, some newborns become exposed during or after childbirth. There's also mounting evidence that babies can become infected with COVID-19 across the placenta in the womb, although this appears rare. If Mom has suspected or confirmed COVID-19 after childbirth, the CDC recommends testing "regardless of whether there are signs of infection in the neonate." The testing should be conducted at 24 hours of age, and if the results are negative, it should be repeated at 48 hours of age. What's more, if a mother gets a positive COVID test result, the newborn should be assumed to have it as well.

After leaving the hospital, babies can also be exposed to COVID-19 through parents, relatives, and caregivers. If you suspect your baby has the coronavirus—or if they've been exposed to it—call the doctor right away. They'll determine if your baby needs testing based on their symptoms, risk factors, and potential exposure. 

Babies diagnosed COVID-19 (and their primary caregiver) should stay away from other family members and take measures to prevent household transmission. They must also self-isolate by staying home until they're no longer contagious.

Seek medical help immediately if your baby has breathing or feeding difficulties, an inability to wake, blue-ish lips, or other worrisome symptoms. 

How to Prevent COVID-19 in Babies

COVID-19 mainly spreads through respiratory droplets emitted when an infected individual coughs, sneezes, talks, or breathes. The CDC says airborne transmission is also possible. Babies can't receive the COVID-19 vaccine, and anyone under 2 years old shouldn't wear a face mask in public (although caregivers should abide by mask mandates). Therefore, to keep your little ones safe, be diligent about social distancing and hand washing. Also, get vaccinated as soon as possible to create a "bubble of protection" around your little one.