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HIV Prevention

Preventing Mother-to-Child Transmission of HIV

(Last updated 11/14/2016; last reviewed 11/14/2016)

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Key Points

  • Mother-to-child transmission of HIV is the spread of HIV from an HIV-infected woman to her child during pregnancy, childbirth (also called labor and delivery), or breastfeeding (through breast milk). Mother-to-child transmission is the most common way that children become infected with HIV.
  • Because of the use of HIV medicines and other strategies, fewer than 200 babies are born with HIV in the United States each year.  
  • Pregnant women with HIV receive HIV medicines during pregnancy and childbirth to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV. In some situations, a woman with HIV may have a scheduled cesarean delivery (sometimes called a C-section) to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV during delivery.
  • Babies born to women with HIV receive HIV medicine for 4 to 6 weeks after birth. The HIV medicine reduces the risk of infection from any HIV that may have entered a baby’s body during childbirth.
  • Because HIV can be transmitted in breast milk, women with HIV living in the United States should not breastfeed their babies. In the United States, baby formula is a safe and healthy alternative to breast milk.

What is mother-to-child transmission of HIV?

Mother-to-child transmission of HIV is the spread of HIV from an HIV-infected woman to her child during pregnancy, childbirth (also called labor and delivery), or breastfeeding (through breast milk). Mother-to-child transmission of HIV is also called perinatal transmission of HIV.

Mother-to-child transmission is the most common way that children become infected with HIV.

Can mother-to-child transmission of HIV be prevented?

Yes. Because of the use of HIV medicines and other strategies, fewer than 200 babies are born with HIV in the United States each year. The risk of mother-to-child transmission of HIV is low when:

  • HIV is detected as early as possible during pregnancy (or before a woman gets pregnant).
  • Women with HIV receive HIV medicine during pregnancy and childbirth and, in certain situations, have a scheduled cesarean delivery (sometimes called a C-section).
  • Babies born to women with HIV receive HIV medicines for 4 to 6 weeks after birth and are not breastfed.

Is HIV testing recommended for pregnant women?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant get tested for HIV as early as possible.

Pregnant women with HIV receive HIV medicines to reduce the risk of mother-to-child transmission of HIV and to protect their own health. HIV medicines are recommended for everyone infected with HIV. HIV medicines help people with HIV live longer, healthier lives and reduce the risk of transmission of HIV.

How do HIV medicines prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV?

HIV medicines work by preventing HIV from multiplying, which reduces the amount of HIV in the body. Having less HIV in the body reduces a woman's risk of passing HIV to her child during pregnancy and childbirth. Having less HIV in the body also protects the woman's health.

Some of the HIV medicine passes from the pregnant woman to her unborn baby across the placenta (also called the afterbirth). This transfer of HIV medicine protects the baby from HIV infection, especially during a vaginal delivery when the baby passes through the birth canal and is exposed to any HIV in the mother’s blood or other fluids. In some situations, a woman with HIV may have a cesarean delivery (sometimes called a C-section) to reduce the risk of mother-to-child transmission of HIV during delivery.

Babies born to women with HIV receive HIV medicine for 4 to 6 weeks after birth. The HIV medicine reduces the risk of infection from any HIV that may have entered a baby’s body during childbirth.

Are HIV medicines safe to use during pregnancy?

Most HIV medicines are safe to use during pregnancy. In general, HIV medicines don’t increase the risk of birth defects. Health care providers discuss the benefits and the risks of specific HIV medicines with HIV-infected women to help them decide which HIV medicines to use during pregnancy.

Are there other ways to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV?

Because HIV can be transmitted in breast milk, HIV-infected women in the United States should not breastfeed their babies. In the United States, baby formula is a safe and healthy alternative to breast milk.

There are reports of children becoming infected with HIV by eating food that was previously chewed by a person infected with HIV. To be safe, babies should not be fed pre-chewed food.

How can I learn more about preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV?

Read the following AIDSinfo fact sheets: 

This fact sheet is based on information from the following sources:

From CDC:

From the Department of Health and Human Services:

  • Recommendations for Use of Antiretroviral Drugs in Pregnant HIV-1-Infected Women for Maternal Health and Interventions to Reduce Perinatal HIV Transmission in the United States: 
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