The current 2019 coronavirus disease (SARS-CoV-2) pandemic has turned out to be the
largest and most pervasive health emergency worldwide. Although novel coronavirus
disease (Covid-19) is insistently attacking the adult population, contingency plans
are impacting all areas of medicine worldwide. In particular, puerperants, parents
of newborns, and infants are becoming infected with severe consequences on neonatal
At present, there is no definitive evidence that SARS-CoV-2 can be transmitted transplacentally
(1–5), and there are no virus detection reports of SARS-CoV-2 in amniotic fluid or
placenta in infected pregnant women (6). However, data are scarce on whether early-stage
fetal infection can lead to teratogenic effects.
An encouraging fact in neonatal medicine is that the horizontally infected neonates
reported to date have shown a mild clinical profile and good outcome (7, 8). Nevertheless,
the current SARS-CoV-2 outbreak is bringing about considerable changes in the care
policy of neonatology units that affect not only infants with SARS-Cov-2 infection
and infants of infected parents, but also the care offered to other admitted patients
(9, 10). These changes mainly impact several key points: (1) the organization and
workflow of the neonatal unit, (2) parent-infant bonding and family-centered care,
and (3) stress-related consequences in health professionals (Figure 1).
Potential consequences of SARS-CoV-2 pandemic on neonatal care.
During this crisis, neonatal units, as most medical hospital divisions, have needed
to implement major changes in their daily workflow. This pandemic has brought about
health-worker shortages as staff become infected or replaced in other positions, and
thus organizing shifts to ensure quality assistance has become difficult and unpredictable.
Further, pandemic outbreaks bring stress upon health-care workers due to the shortage
of medical resources, overwork with long shifts and restrictions on socialization,
and the pain of losing colleagues or becoming infected and possibly infecting families.
In addition, we should note the moral distress and its effects experienced by health
professionals when they are unable to act according to the evidence and their deeply-held
convictions concerning family care because of limitations beyond their control.
Well-designed actions that encourage stress reduction, provide psychological support,
and promote resilience can help make the day-to-day in neonatal units less stressful.
In this situation, perspectives to recognize and mitigate moral distress are necessary.
Strategies such as identification the most vulnerable professionals as well as the
senior experts, debriefing together about ethically challenging clinical cases, effective
communication within the team, accurate guidelines to be followed, and flexibility
to facilitate health workers leadership to develop their work efficiently, should
help deal with such difficulties and gain moral comfort (11). In this sense, clear
and sensitive leadership, interdisciplinary collaboration and mutual support to achieve
common goals are essential. Due to the high reported prevalence of psychological distress
in quarantined health workers, institutional support for them is essential to facilitate
their return to work and to provide psychological assistance if necessary (12).
The family-centered care model has been incorporated into neonatal units based on
the ethics of care and scientific evidence that suggests that in order to promote
correct neurodevelopment and achieve the best health outcomes of the family unit it
is crucial to establish an environment that promotes healing. This model effectively
encourages parent-infant bonding in order to improve the ability to provide health
throughout development. The family and particularly parents, play an active role as
primary caregivers of their child, and responsibility in making decisions is shared
between health professionals and the families of infants. Being able to exercise this
role of primary caregivers brings benefits in the emotional health of parents that
have a positive impact on babies in the medium and long term (13). In addition, promoting
this task to parents will also support professional's well-being to better cope with
the current pandemic scenario.
Contingency plans during pandemic outbreaks may directly clash with this model, largely
due to isolation recommendations. Initial recommendations supported changes to delivery
plans by introducing restrictions on early skin-to-skin contact, the presence of the
father at childbirth, and late-cord clamping (14, 15). In addition, infants born to
infected mothers as well as newborns with confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection should be
separated and isolated in an individual room with specific air handling and the use
of protective equipment.
However, current recommendations are being modified on a case-by case basis accounting
for the disease severity, illness symptoms, and results of laboratory testing for
the virus. In mothers in good clinical condition the separation of the binomial mother-child
pair might be not recommended, as long as precautionary measures can be guaranteed
to avoid contagion such as using a facemask, practicing hand, and breast hygiene before
each feeding, and maintaining a safe distance of two meters. Likewise, infected neonates
undergo recommendations that vary from isolated admission without caregivers to strategies
adapted to the clinical situation of the baby, but with the accompaniment of their
parents (16, 17).
Apart from physiological benefits for mothers and infants, breastfeeding also helps
the mother to better cope with the stress of hospitalization, participate directly
in the care of the baby, connect emotionally, and facilitate the construction of the
maternal role. Even though to date no viral load has been isolated in breast milk
and there are no major reasons to avoid breastfeeding in the infants of infected mothers,
recommendations for restriction are shared (10, 14). To date, International guidelines
advise that breastfeeding should continue, whether or not the lactating parent has
SARS-CoV-2 infection, with appropriate precautions (18, 19). Pasteurized donated milk
(milk bank) is a crucial resource for intensive care infants whose mothers are unable
to provide their own milk temporarily. Interruption of feeding with donated breast
milk, particularly in very premature or very low birth weight infants, increases the
risk of necrotizing enterocolitis in these children, hence it is considered a major
health intervention in these patients. However, in the current situation, most potential
donors have to stay home due to general confinement, and given the shortage of reserves,
milk bank may need to be prioritized for preterm infants younger than 30 weeks of
gestational age or weighing <1,500 g at birth whose mother cannot provide her own
milk (20). Strategies must be developed to maintain donations and overcome the difficulties
of confinement over milk banks.
The contingency plans required by the circumstances in the current SARS-CoV-2 outbreak
scenario must not let us forget that restrictions on parental contact and interventions
in the care of infants may entail costs to the families in addition to the loss of
opportunities for the newborn to adapt to the extrauterine environment and advance
in neurodevelopment. Restrictions on families are especially relevant in the NICU
as they cause emotional disturbance and may profoundly alter the bonding and relationship
established with the baby if the resulting emotions continue over time. In this sense,
it would be desirable to incorporate parents into contingency plan decisions, such
as in the schedule of their presence at the neonatal unit. These compensatory strategies
can help to reduce parental discomfort and to encourage parental bonding with the
infant that leads to better results and provides some protection against the many
challenges that arise during the infant's hospital stay and will influence later childhood
outcome, particularly in premature babies (21).
Those measures that go against this framework of care for the newborn and their families
should be measured carefully in order to balance the costs for the newborn, and also
for the families. Although adherence to contingency plans is critical, some recommendations
may be based on fear rather than evidence-based decision-making. It is therefore desirable
that contingency plans be periodically modified on the basis of accumulated scientific
evidence, and as far as possible, the measures taken during pandemic outbreaks should
have as little impact as possible on this family-centered care model while following
the guiding principle of cushioning the impact they have on binomial-focused infant-family
Importantly, health-workers should rely positively on the contingency plans and help
parents to reduce their fear and encourage them to participate in their children's
care. Adequate family psychological support and the participation of social workers
are essential components of this effort.
Beyond all these threats, in the current coronavirus pandemic outbreak there are opportunities
to develop strategies to maintain the excellence of perinatal care. In fact, a stressful
environment may have value aspects as it can promote progress and further discussion
about care betterment (11).
Telehealth is a growing strategy to reduce the limitations that exist in knowledge
and expertise in different areas of the planet, as well as to facilitate telematic
contact in situations of restrictions. Telehealth could help in two notable ways by:
(a) providing telemedicine-guided assessment to avoid transfers and to take advantage
of highly-experienced colleagues, and (b) promoting family involvement with the infant,
among relatives that support the labile emotional state of parents, and with social
and health workers through a videoconferencing presence at daily rounds. In addition,
this tool could be used for remote rounds to enhance family education and neonatal
follow-up after discharge (22).
Accepting that every pandemic imposes a learning curve on how to prevent and control
the outbreak, we should not overlook the opportunity to resolve epidemiological, organizational,
diagnostic, and treatment questions throughout qualitative and quantitative research
projects. The follow-up of infected patients and recording of outcomes in databases
are essential to improving knowledge and experience for future prevention and treatment
strategies (Figure 1).
The authors have participated in the conception, writing, and reviewing of the manuscript.
Conflict of Interest
The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial
or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.