The HIV virus can lurk in a person’s body for many years, producing no symptoms that would prompt medical examination or suggest the person is contagious with the virus. When left untreated, HIV leads to AIDS. It is believed that as many as 160,000 women in the United States are HIV positive but 25 percent of them, as many as 40,000 women, don’t know they’re infected. The HIV virus can pass from mother to child at every stage of pregnancy, including delivery. Breastfeeding can spread it, too.

Get Tested

Medical experts recommend HIV testing for every pregnant woman. In the US, around 7,000 HIV-positive women give birth every year. Diligent medical care during pregnancy dramatically reduces the baby’s risk of infection.

When a woman does not get treatment for HIV during pregnancy, the risk of passing the virus to her child is one in four, or 25 percent. With adequate treatment during pregnancy and at the time of birth, fewer than 2 percent of the babies will be infected.

An HIV test is the only way to know if treatment should begin. Many medical specialists recommend testing before a woman tries to become pregnant or as soon as possible when pregnancy is unplanned.

Passing the Virus to Your Baby

Direct contact with a mother’s infected blood and body fluids duringlabor and deliverycan infect a baby with the virus. To minimize risk to the baby, an HIV-positive woman can expect to be given an intravenous (IV) line supplying the HIV drug zidovudine (AZT) throughout labor and delivery.

Cesarean delivery (C-section) is recommended for women who are not treated for their HIV infection during pregnancy and to those treated but who have a high virus level anyway. The 38th week of pregnancy is the most recommended time for C-section delivery in HIV patients.

HIV Treatment During Pregnancy

Many people knowingly live with the virus for many years without need of medication but all pregnant HIV-positive women need to begin taking HIV medications by the fourth month of pregnancy to best protect the child.

Several drugs are available to combat the virus. Many HIV patients take a combination of three drugs, described as a cocktail. This cocktail may need to be adjusted during pregnancy and after.

Your HIV and the Newborn Baby

Once a baby is born to an HIV-positive mother, preventive measures continue. Most newborns begin a regimen of liquid AZT within the first 12 hours after birth and continue for six weeks. The baby will be tested for HIV periodically throughout the first six months of its life.

The mother’s treatment should continue after the pregnancy but specific drugs or dosages may need adjusting to be more compatible with her changing body.

The HIV virus can pass from mother to child during breastfeeding. The longer a child is breastfed by an HIV-positive mother, the more likely the baby will become infected. To reduce the risk of infection for the baby, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends alternative methods of feeding.

Guidelines for a Healthy Pregnancy

All women who are pregnant -- HIV-positive or not -- are urged to take on a lifestyle as healthy as possible. The lifelong health of the child is influenced by many factors during pregnancy. These guidelines for a healthy pregnancy will get a precious new life off to an optimum start:

  • Get tested early for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases
  • Indulge in a healthy, nutritious diet
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs (except those prescribed by a physician)
  • Stop smoking
  • Don’t skip prenatal visits
  • Seek help if pregnancy is causing emotional distress
  • Seek help if HIV is causing emotional distress

The mission of HIV treatment is to keep the viral load (the level of active virus in the bloodstream) to a minimum. Doing so helps prevent infection from escalating to AIDS and minimizes the risk of passing the disease to others, including the baby a pregnant woman carries. Proper medical care is essential when HIV and pregnancy co-exist.

Source: "HIV and Pregnancy Fact Sheet." National Institutes of Health/AIDS Info. Web. 28 Oct 2013.