Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2002;65(10):2125-2126

What is perinatal HIV?

Perinatal is the time right before and right after birth. HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. HIV is the virus that causes AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). The words “perinatal HIV” mean that HIV has been passed to the baby from the mother. In general, babies born to mothers who have HIV have a 25% to 30% chance of being infected with HIV.

How can my baby get perinatal HIV?

Your baby can get HIV several ways: during pregnancy, during labor and delivery, or during breastfeeding. Most babies get infected with HIV during labor and delivery. There may be less of a chance of passing HIV to your baby if you have a cesarean delivery (C-section). Talk about this with your doctor.

If I'm thinking about becoming pregnant or if I am pregnant, should I get tested for HIV?

You should talk about this with your doctor. In some states, your doctor is required by law to offer you an HIV test. If you think you are at risk for HIV infection or may already have HIV, you may want to be tested. If you find out that you are infected with HIV, you might choose not to have children. If you are already pregnant when you find out, you have time to think about doing things to lower the chance that your baby will be infected with HIV.

How can I find out if my baby has HIV?

During pregnancy, the mother's antibodies (part of the immune system that fights germs) are passed on to her baby. So all babies of women with HIV will test positive for HIV antibodies at first. This doesn't mean the baby is infected. Babies keep the mother's antibodies until they can make their own, which happens between six and 18 months of age.

A baby who isn't infected will lose the mother's antibodies and start to test negative for HIV sometime between six and 18 months of age.

A baby who is infected with HIV will still lose the mother's antibodies, but that baby will start to make antibodies to HIV. The baby will test positive and continue to test positive for HIV.

Should I end my pregnancy if I find out I'm HIV-positive?

Not necessarily. You should talk about it with your doctor. There are medicines that can lower the chance that you will pass HIV to your baby.

Can medicines prevent my baby from getting HIV?

Medicine will not completely protect your baby from getting HIV, but it can lower the chance that the baby will get the virus. A medicine called zidovudine (brand name: Retrovir) can reduce the rate of passing HIV from mother to baby by two thirds. Zidovudine slows the growth of the virus, so the baby's immune system (which helps fight germs and illness) can get stronger. The medicine is also called AZT.

Where can I get more information?

Your doctor.

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

  • National HIV and AIDS Hotline

    Telephone: 1-800-342-2437

    (Spanish: 800-344-7432)


  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

  • National Prevention Information Network

    Telephone: 1-800-458-5231 (TYY: 800-243-7012)


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