Nicole with baby Rosie at 3 weeks old.

Pandemic Parenting

New mother to baby Rosie, Nicole Ervine was well aware of the new circumstances in which would encompass her birthing experience. However, her understanding of the situation did nothing to calm her anxieties. Days before her birthing experience she says how she wondered how clean the hospital would be regarding Coronavirus for her and her new baby. She speaks of how she was afraid she would be alone during her birth ‘not knowing what to do’.

For pregnant women over the past year, their birthing experience has been unlike any other, and with this concept brought anxiety and apprehension. The year 2020 started the onslaught of ‘Covid19’ – a highly infectious virus in which has caused the death of thousands across the United Kingdom.

Due to the high infection rate of the virus and the resulting lockdowns, new mothers are experiencing isolation in ways most of us can only imagine. Hospitals and maternity services have had to make the decision to implement restrictions for the safety and wellbeing of new mothers and their unborn and new-born babies and provide a safe working environment for the staff in who are providing care to the expecting mothers.

By March 2020 restrictions within maternity services were at their tightest with partners not being allowed to attend anti-natal appointments or be there for the birth of their child due to risk of infection. As I write this article in April 2021, restrictions have loosened but only slightly.

Current restrictions state that some antenatal appointments may be held virtually, and the patient may be asked to attend on their own. The number of antenatal appointments may be reduced in order to limit face to face contact and prevent the virus being brought onto the ward.

Restrictions also state that children are strictly not allowed within maternity services during appointments or visitation. Perhaps the most unsettling restriction for mothers is the limit on birthing partners, as it stands currently, one named partner is allowed in the room once the mother is in what midwife Sheila Taylor describes as ‘good labour’.

For mothers like Nicole, it was this fact that was the most daunting she recalls how she was alone for the initial stages of her labour, she says “I was brought in at 12 and my partner was allowed in at about six when they took me to the labour ward”.

Nicole says, after the birth of baby Rosie, her husband then had to leave them again. “I gave birth and then he wasn’t allowed in again until we were going home, we were in the hospital for two days. My husband met us in reception with the car seat to go home”, she says.

Restrictions during the birth of baby Rosie meant that the birthing partner must leave the hospital once the mother has given birth and visitations were prohibited during this time as the virus was at its peak.

It is not just the idea of being alone during birth that is causing anxiety for new mothers at this time, the virus itself and the potential consequences for their baby is a terrifying concept for new mothers.

Nicole tells of her own experience of health worries for her child during the pandemic saying, “we had Covid in December, her baby was not tested but experienced some symptoms”.

Nicole with baby Rosie at 6 months old

Speaking with two other mothers on their anxieties, one mother, Alison says how her main concern when entering the hospital was ‘catching the virus and my new-born catching the virus”. These are concerns that follow most mothers in whom I spoke to about the anxiety of their hospital stay.

Community Midwife Sheila Taylor from County Down explained that due to these restrictions and anxieties, more women have opted for home births during the pandemic, she laughs “I’m scheduled for one tonight actually”.

It Is important to remember that although these changes are the cause of anxiety and distress for new mothers, yes, it is also cause for frustrations and difficulty for the midwives who supply the around the clock care. Sheila told me that before coming into contact with a patient she must first ‘gown up’. She continues that as a result of the PPE “it is difficult to communicate with behind masks, so appointments take a bit longer”. A situation which is both frustrating of the midwives and daunting for their patients.

For these new mothers, the feelings of isolation only heighten when they finally leave the hospital and return home. The usual routine for a mother returning home with her new baby is to be bombarded with visitors bursting to hold the new child and excited grandparents offering their in-house help.

However, restrictions have brought this to a halt for most parents. The household restrictions have left mothers at risk of feeling alone and isolated and for some mothers, being left alone with their own thoughts in this manner can have a negative impact on their mental health.

The three mothers say they have at some point post-partum felt isolated and at times overwhelmed.

A study carried out by the University of Alberta, reported on by the ‘Independent’ concluded that the number of mothers suffering from postnatal depression have significantly increased since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

Pre pandemic, the risk of a women experiencing symptoms of postnatal depression was already high, reported by the independent to be one in seven women feeling this way following the birth of their child. However, since the beginning of the pandemic these figures have more than doubled, going from 15 per cent of women reporting symptoms of postnatal depression to 41 per cent and women reportedly experience moderate to high anxiety and depression have increased from 29 per cent to a soaring 72 cent.

Dr Margie Davenport, co-author of the study, told the independent that “The social and physical isolation measures that are critically needed to reduce the spread of the virus are taking a toll on the physical and mental health of many of us”.

However, as seen from the results of this study, it is new mothers that are experiencing the full effect of the lockdown. A second mother that spoke to me Alison Lee, told me of her own experience with the lockdown measures.

She says, “I felt very isolated at times and overwhelmed as I was felt like I was left to it on my own”. Alison says the closure of drop-in clinics left her stuck for advice and says that she experienced feelings of isolation from being inside all day, “you’re on your own all day when your husband goes back to work, it was tough at times”.

However, helping her through becoming a new mother during these challenging times she gushed, “my husband has been a great support, so you learn how to deal with it and carry on”.

It is an easy observation from this study to understand the impact that the pandemic has head on the mental health of new parents. However, Annie Belasco the head of the charity PANDAS for postnatal depression told Yahoo, that “Covid19 is not a direct cause of postnatal depression, but the circumstances and additional stress resulting from them could certainly contribute”.

There seem to be common factors in which they struggle with the most. All three mothers commented on struggling with feeling isolated. Expanding on this for me, Alison admitted that she finds it difficult not being around her family at a time like this.

Discussing this further she says ‘not being able to see family when you struggle or just need a little break you would normally just nip to see mum’ she continues “you need this so much more with a new baby. Knowing family have missed out on the new-born cuddles and will never get them’. This is the reality for many new mothers as by the time restrictions have eased, their child has passed the new-born phase.

It is normal for a new mum to feel overwhelmed, with new responsibilities and the prospect of raising a baby is daunting. However, considering the circumstances it is not surprising for new mums, to at times, feel like they are in a sinking ship now more than ever.

As previously mentioned by Alison, drop-in clinics are not open, and this feels like a huge loss of support and security for new mothers. Leaving them feeling as if they really have been thrown in the deep end.

It is during this period of closures that we realise the importance of our community services, services such as mother and toddler groups. For some mothers, the local mother and baby groups are a saving grace. These groups are beneficial for baby development and for building a support network for new mums.

Groups such as these give mums and excuse to get dressed and leave the house and meet mums in the same boat as them. Writing to ‘Tots Play’ a mother using the services states that ‘there is something about walking into a room of people who ‘get it’.

For babies it is a place for them to learn and grow through play and helps with social development. These groups allow for children to be socialised with other children, be stimulated intellectually and physically.

The closure of these services throughout the last year has left mums without a place to escape to and find that face to face support with people sharing the same experience as them.

For some mothers like Alison there is the worry for how a lack of socialisation will impact the development of social skills. Commenting on the closure of mother and baby groups Alison told me.

“Of course, you worry about how this effects their social development. I don’t want him to be a clingy baby to me. However, he’s spent all his time with me so he may struggle with separation anxiety. They’ve missed out on so much, hopefully he’ll adapt when we are able to do much more. We have been to a sensory place, and he played with his friends, he was obsessed with touching other babies, he must have thought “what is this”.

Laughing she says, “I think he will adapt quite well”.

As postnatal depression rises throughout lockdowns, it is important for new parents to remember to care for themselves and maintain their own mental health. I asked Alison and Nicole what they do to keep a positive attitude and clear headspace while being stuck in the house.

Alison explained that she stopped watching the news for the sake of her mental health as it “depressed” her, with growing reports about Covid19. Both Alison and Nicole often take walks with their babies to get out of the house, Alison mentioned that staying connected and chatting with friends and family keeps her spirits high.

It is important to remember that although the current circumstances are lonely, the time parents get to spend with their new baby is, perhaps, the one positive.  Despite everything, Alison says that this year “we’ve done some great activities, some I may not have if I’d been out and about more”.

A quote from Alison which sums up the experience all over the United Kingdom right now; “We’ve made the most out of an unimaginable situation”.

It goes without saying that the work of the NHS and all midwives has helped new mothers and fathers through these trying times, their tireless efforts over the Covid19 pandemic have made what is an extremely daunting set of circumstances that small bit easier. Thank you.

Although the circumstances may not be how Nicole had imagined the birth of her baby girl or how the first months of little Rosie’s life to look. Nicole advises new parents to stay safe and keep an open mind and enjoy every minute with your little one as “life is too short, and they grow to quickly so make as many memories as possible”.

If you or someone you know is experiencing signs of postpartum depression, the following are here to help.

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