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

It’s possible for HIV to be passed from a woman to her baby:

  • during pregnancy
  • during labour and birth
  • through breastfeeding

However, if you receive treatment for HIV during pregnancy and do not breastfeed your baby, the risk of your baby getting HIV is less than 1%. Without treatment, the risk is around 25%.

All pregnant women in the UK are offered an HIV test as part of their antenatal screening. You will be offered a blood test for four infectious diseases:

  • HIV
  • syphilis
  • hepatitis
  • rubella 

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 combination therapy (also called highly active antiretroviral therapy or HAART) during pregnancy, even if you don’t need HIV treatment for your own health 
  • bottle feeding your baby, rather than breastfeeding

If you have HIV, do not breastfeed your baby because the virus can be transmitted through breast milk.

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 a woman passing HIV to her baby:

  • if the HIV virus cannot be detected in her blood (an undetectable viral load), and
  • if her HIV is well managed

In some cases, doctors may recommend that a woman has a planned caesarean section before going into labour, to reduce the risk of passing on HIV, for example:

  • if she’s not taking combination therapy
  • if the HIV virus can be detected in the blood (a detectable viral load)

Is it safe to take HIV medication in pregnancy?

Some medicines for HIV are not suitable to take during pregnancy. If you have HIV and become pregnant, contact your 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

However, if you’re taking HIV medication and you become pregnant, don’t stop taking your medication without speaking to your GP.

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 is born, they will be given HIV medication, usually for four weeks, to prevent them from developing the condition.

Your baby will be tested to see if they have HIV on the day they’re born. They will usually be tested again at six and 12 weeks.

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

Further information:


HIV and pregnancy

Sarah has HIV. She describes her pregnancy and the steps she had to take to ensure she’d have a healthy baby. An expert explains what HIV is and how to avoid passing it on to your unborn child.

Media last reviewed: 29/05/2015

Next review due: 29/05/2017

Page last reviewed: 05/09/2013

Next review due: 04/09/2015