If you do not have anti-retroviral treatment, there is a much greater risk that you will pass on the virus to your baby.
This leaflet is provided by the Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists, the professional body that works to improve health care for women everywhere, by setting standards for clinical practice, providing doctors with training and lifelong learning, and advocating for women's health care worldwide.
This information is for you if you have been diagnosed with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and you are pregnant or planning to have a baby. If you are a partner, relative or friend of someone who is in this situation, you may also find it helpful.
What is HIV and what could it mean for my baby?
HIV is a type of virus called a retrovirus that prevents the body's immune system from working properly and makes it hard to fight off infections. If you have the virus, this is known as being HIV positive.
The virus can be passed from one person to another through the exchange of body fluids including blood, semen, vaginal fluids and breast milk.
You can pass the virus on to your baby through the placenta while you are pregnant, during the birth and through your breast milk. The care you will receive aims to reduce the risk of passing HIV on to your baby.
What extra antenatal care can I expect if I am HIV positive?
You will be offered specialist care and regular health checks. You should be cared for by a team of specialists that includes:
- A doctor who specialises in HIV.
- An obstetrician (a doctor who specialises in the care of pregnant women).
- A specialist midwife.
- A paediatrician (a doctor who specialises in children's health).
You and your baby will be monitored during your pregnancy, and this may include extra ultrasound scans. The amount of virus (viral load) and antibodies to HIV (CD4) in your blood will be monitored, as will drug levels if you are on treatment.
Infection and vaccination
If you are HIV positive, it is important to know whether you are immune to certain infections. Like other pregnant women, you will be recommended to have tests in early pregnancy for hepatitis B, rubella (German measles) and syphilis. However, you will also be offered tests for hepatitis C, varicella zoster (chickenpox), measles and toxoplasmosis.
All pregnant women are offered the whooping cough vaccine. You will also be recommended to have vaccinations for hepatitis B (if you are not immune) and pneumococcus, and the flu vaccine (in the autumn/winter months). These are safe in pregnancy.
The vaccines for chickenpox, measles, mumps and rubella are not safe in pregnancy and therefore you will be offered them after your baby is born, if you are not immune.
If you are receiving treatment for HIV for your own health, you may be recommended to have antibiotics to reduce your chance of developing pneumonia. You should be offered a swab for vaginal infections early in pregnancy and then again around the 28th week of your pregnancy. If the swab shows infection, you should be offered treatment to reduce the risk of passing on HIV to your baby.
All women are offered a screening test for Down's syndrome. If your test shows you are at increased risk of having a baby with Down's syndrome, you will be referred to a fetal medicine unit to discuss your options further. There is a risk that further tests may transfer HIV to your baby. This will be discussed with you fully.
If you are taking certain medications for HIV in early pregnancy, you may be advised to have a test for gestational diabetes (diabetes that is first diagnosed in pregnancy) between 24 and 28 weeks.
Can I reduce the chance of passing on HIV to my baby?
Yes. You can greatly reduce the risk of passing on HIV to your baby if you:
- Have treatment with anti-retroviral drugs (see below).
- Avoid breast-feeding and choose to bottle-feed your baby with formula milk.
- Have a caesarean section if your specialist team recommends it.
Should I have anti-retroviral treatment in pregnancy?
Yes. The drugs used to treat HIV infection are known as anti-retrovirals. Sometimes three or more types are used together, which is known as highly active anti-retroviral therapy (HAART). Your doctors will offer you anti-retrovirals during your pregnancy and at the birth of your baby (if you are not taking them already) to help reduce the chance of passing the virus on to your baby. Anti-retroviral treatment may also be of benefit to your own health.
If you do not have anti-retroviral treatment, there is a much greater risk that you will pass on the virus to your baby.
Is anti-retroviral treatment safe in pregnancy?
Anti-retroviral drugs are generally safe but they can sometimes have side-effects, including stomach and digestive problems, diabetes, rashes, extreme tiredness, high temperature and breathlessness. It is important to tell your doctor or midwife if you experience any unusual symptoms while you are pregnant.
Anti-retroviral drugs can also sometimes cause liver problems. If you have started HAART in pregnancy, you should have regular blood tests to check that your liver is working normally. Some drugs may reduce the levels of iron in your blood (anaemia) and you may be advised to have iron supplements. You are more likely to go into labour early if you are taking HAART.
For your baby
Anti-retroviral treatment itself does not appear to be harmful for babies. Not taking the medication is much more likely to be harmful for your baby, because the risk of passing HIV on to your baby will be much higher.
What anti-retroviral treatment should I have?
You will be recommended to take those drugs considered best for you. You will also be advised when you should start and stop taking them. You may be in one of the following circumstances:
You are already taking anti-retrovirals
Your doctors will recommend that you take HAART during pregnancy and after you have had your baby. If you were taking this before pregnancy, you should not stop your medication.
You are not taking anti-retrovirals
You should be offered treatment to stop you passing on the virus to your baby. The usual treatment is HAART, as described above. Treatment with a single anti-retroviral drug (zidovudine) may be considered if your viral load is less than 10,000, your CD4 count is more than 350 and you are prepared to have a caesarean section.
Your doctor will usually recommend that you start the treatment between 14 and 24 weeks of your pregnancy and continue until your baby is born.
What is the best way to give birth to my baby?
Your team will discuss with you the best way to give birth. The treatment you are taking, your viral load and CD4 count at 36 weeks and previous pregnancies will be taken into account.
- You should be able to have a vaginal delivery, even if you have had a caesarean section before, if you are taking HAART, have a viral load less than 50 and a CD4 count more than 350.
- If you are taking HAART and your viral load is between 50 and 399, your doctors may recommend a caesarean section, usually at 38 weeks. This will depend on the pattern of your viral load, how long you have been on treatment and your wishes.
- You will be advised to have a caesarean section, usually at 38 weeks, if:
- You are taking HAART and have a viral load of 400 or more.
- You are taking zidovudine alone.
- Hepatitis C virus is detected in your blood.
If your doctors advise a planned caesarean section but you want a vaginal birth, your wishes should be respected. However, as with all women, if there are concerns about you and your baby during labour, you may need an emergency caesarean section.
Whatever method you choose, a sample of your blood should be taken at the time of the birth to check the amount of the virus in your blood.
What happens if I have a planned caesarean section?
If you are taking HAART, you should continue to take this as advised by your doctor.
You should be prescribed zidovudine through a drip, which will be started a few hours before your caesarean section. It should continue until your baby is born and the umbilical cord has been clamped.
Because you are likely to have your caesarean section before 39 weeks, you should be offered a course of two to four corticosteroid injections over a 48-hour period to lessen the chance of breathing problems for your baby. You can find out more about this from the RCOG patient information leaflet Corticosteroids in pregnancy to reduce complications from being born prematurely.
If your contractions start before your planned caesarean section, you should come straight to hospital. The caesarean section will be done as soon as possible. Occasionally, labour may be too advanced and it may be safer for you and your baby to have a vaginal birth.
What happens if I have a planned vaginal birth?
You should be given HAART treatment throughout your labour. The earlier in labour that your waters break, the higher the risk of passing HIV on to your baby.
You should be prescribed an infusion of zidovudine if your waters have broken or if you are known to have a very high viral load.
If you go past your due date and your viral load cannot be detected, it may be possible to have labour started off (induced).
What if my waters break early?
After 37 weeks
- Planned vaginal birth
If your waters break before you go into labour and your viral load is less than 50, it may be possible to induce labour with a drip to start contractions. This will be started straightaway.
- Planned caesarean section
If your waters break before your planned caesarean section, you should come straight to hospital. The caesarean section will be done as soon as possible.
Before 37 weeks
If your waters break before your contractions start, your team will discuss with you whether it would be better for your baby to be born rather than waiting. This will depend on how far you are in your pregnancy and your individual risk of transmitting HIV to your baby. You can find out more about this from the RCOG patient information leaflet When your waters break early.
What treatment will my baby need after birth?
Your baby should be given anti-retroviral drugs within 4 hours and this should be continued until he or she is between 4 and 6 weeks of age.
Your baby should be tested for HIV during the first 2 days, on discharge from hospital, at 6 weeks and at 12 weeks. If these tests are negative and you are not breast-feeding, your baby does not have HIV. A further test to confirm this will be done when your baby is 18 months old.
What is the best way to feed my baby?
You can greatly reduce the risk of passing on HIV if you do not breast-feed and do not use your own expressed breast milk. This is the single most important means of reducing the risk to your baby. If you are HIV positive, it is safer to use formula milk.
Will anyone else be told about my HIV status?
Your healthcare team needs to be aware that you are HIV positive, so that they can provide the best care possible for you and your baby.
If you have not yet told your sexual partner that you are HIV positive, the team will encourage and support you to do so, in order to reduce the risk of passing on HIV.
They should not tell anyone about your HIV status without your permission. They should respect your right to confidentiality and use care and sensitivity where information about you could be disclosed to your partner or relatives.
The only exception is if you are putting your partner at risk. In these circumstances, health professionals may tell a sexual partner about your HIV status. Your healthcare team must discuss this with you first. They must weigh up any risks involved for you (such as violence and/or abuse) before they decide what to do.
What should I do if I am planning to have a baby?
- If either you or your partner is HIV positive, you should be advised about safer sex practices and the use of condoms to prevent transmission of HIV.
- You should be offered pre-pregnancy counselling and advice on conception options with a team, which should include a fertility specialist and an HIV specialist.
- You will be advised to wait until your viral load is low and to make sure any infection is treated.
- All women are advised to take folic acid (400 micrograms daily) for 3 months before they get pregnant. If you are taking co-trimoxazole, you will be advised to take the higher dose of folic acid (5 mg daily).
- If the male partner is HIV positive:
- The risk of transmitting HIV to the woman is almost zero if he is taking HAART, has had a viral load of less than 50 for at least 6 months and has no other infections and unprotected intercourse occurs just at the fertile time of the woman's cycle; in this situation, sperm washing may not reduce the risk of transmitting HIV and may actually reduce the likelihood of getting pregnant.
- You may wish to consider assisted conception with sperm washing or donor sperm if there is a high chance of transmitting HIV.
Is there anything else I should know?
If you are HIV positive, you should get contraceptive advice from the specialist team after you have had your baby.
Women with HIV infection are recommended to have yearly cervical smears.
Content used with permission from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists website: HIV and pregnancy. Copyright for this leaflet is with the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.
Further reading and references
Antenatal care for uncomplicated pregnancies; NICE Clinical Guideline (March 2008 - updated February 2019)
Management of suspected bacterial urinary tract infection in adults; Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network - SIGN (updated July 2012)
Guidelines on Urological Infections; European Association of Urology (2019)
Urinary tract infection (lower) - women; NICE CKS, July 2015 (UK access only)
Chickenpox in Pregnancy; Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (January 2015)
Zika virus; Public Health England
Viral rash in pregnancy; Public Health England
Diabetes in pregnancy - management from preconception to the postnatal period; NICE Clinical Guideline (February 2015 - last updated December 2020)
Hypertension in pregnancy; NICE Clinical Guideline (August 2010, updated 2011)
Obstetric Cholestasis; Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (May 2011, update 2014)
Gurung V, Middleton P, Milan SJ, et al; Interventions for treating cholestasis in pregnancy. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013 Jun 246:CD000493. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD000493.pub2.