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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 a woman to her baby.

This can happen:

  • during pregnancy
  • during labour and birth
  • through breastfeeding

But if a woman is receiving treatment for HIV during pregnancy and doesn't breastfeed her baby, it's possible to greatly reduce the risk of the baby getting HIV.

All pregnant women in the UK are offered a blood test as part of their antenatal screening.

This will test for 4 infectious diseases:

  • HIV
  • syphilis
  • hepatitis B
  • 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 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, rather than breastfeeding
  • your doctor prescribing your baby antiretroviral drugs for up to 4 weeks after they have been born

Do not breastfeed your baby if you have HIV, as 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 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.

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

But if you're taking HIV medication and you become pregnant, do not stop taking your medication without first 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's born, they'll be given HIV medication, usually for 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.

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

Further information

Page last reviewed: 19 October 2018
Next review due: 19 October 2021