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Can HIV be passed to an unborn baby in pregnancy or through breastfeeding?

Yes, it's possible for HIV to be passed from you to your baby.

This can happen:

  • during pregnancy
  • during labour and birth
  • through breastfeeding

But if you are receiving treatment for HIV during pregnancy and don't breastfeed your baby, it's possible to greatly reduce the risk of the baby getting HIV.

Anyone who's pregnant is offered a blood test as part of routine antenatal screening.

This will test for 3 infectious diseases:

  • HIV
  • syphilis
  • hepatitis B

Reducing the risk of passing HIV to your baby

If you have HIV, you can reduce the risk of passing it to your baby by:

  • taking antiretroviral drugs during pregnancy, even if you don't need HIV treatment for your own health
  • considering the choice between a caesarean or vaginal delivery with your doctor
  • bottle feeding your baby with formula, rather than breastfeeding
  • your doctor prescribing your baby antiretroviral drugs for about 4 weeks after they have been born

HIV can be passed to a baby through breastmilk. The chance of this happening is lower if your HIV viral load is undetectable (very low).

If you're taking antiretroviral medicine and your viral load is undetectable, you may choose to breastfeed your baby. You and your baby will be offered extra checks as there's a small chance HIV will pass to your baby.

Do not breastfeed your baby if your viral load is detectable.

Speak to your doctor or midwife for advice.

Does having a caesarean reduce the risk of passing on HIV?

Advances in treatment mean that a vaginal delivery shouldn't increase the risk of passing HIV to your baby if both of the following apply:

  • the HIV virus can't be detected in your blood (an undetectable viral load)
  • your HIV is well managed

In some cases, doctors may recommend a planned caesarean section before going into labour to reduce the risk of passing on HIV.

For example:

  • if you're not taking antiretroviral drugs (combination therapy)
  • if the HIV virus can be detected in your blood (a detectable viral load)

Is it safe to take HIV medication in pregnancy?

Some medicines for HIV aren't suitable to take during pregnancy.

But if you're taking HIV medication and you become pregnant, do not stop taking your medication without first speaking to your GP.

If you have HIV and become pregnant, contact your local HIV clinic.

This is important because:

  • some anti-HIV medicines can harm unborn babies, so your treatment plan will need to be reviewed
  • additional medicines may be needed to prevent your baby getting HIV

Always check with your GP or midwife before taking any medicine when you're pregnant.

Will my baby need to be treated?

After your baby's born, they'll be given HIV medication, usually for about 4 weeks, to stop them developing HIV.

Your baby will be tested for HIV within 48 hours of birth. They'll usually be tested again at 6 and 12 weeks. A final test is also needed when your baby is 18 months old. If you choose to breastfeed, your baby will be tested more often.

Read the answers to more questions about sexual health and questions about pregnancy.

Further information