Credit: Jonathan Borba, Unsplash
Giving birth during the COVID-19 pandemic can feel scary. It’s no surprise that anxiety and depression are affecting more new and expectant parents: A June 2020 study published in Frontiers in Global Women’s Health found that rates of moderate to severe anxiety and depression have more than doubled in pregnant women and new mothers during the pandemic.
Questions, uncertainty, fear and doubt are normal reactions when anyone enters a new stage of life, and they’ve long been hallmarks of pregnancy and new parenthood. This year, new parents have a whole new set of concerns related to COVID-19 and adhering to health and safety guidelines that continue to evolve.
Thankfully, even during a COVID-era pregnancy, it’s possible to find calm, comfort and community. Here’s how.
Uncertainty can fuel fear and anxiety, so don’t let unanswered questions about your baby’s birth linger. Clear up any questions you have with your provider and support team long before the birth, says postpartum depression specialist and psychiatrist Tuesday Burns, M.D., medical director of THIRA Health, a mental health treatment center for women and girls in Bellevue, Washington.
Getting answers to questions such as “What will happen immediately after my baby is born?” “How will the hospital staff make sure my baby is safe?” and “Who can join me in the delivery room during labor?” can be reassuring and help reduce anxiety, says Burns. “There’s always time to ask questions. Every question a new parent has is reasonable, and you deserve really thoughtful answers. Nothing should come as a surprise at the time of delivery.”
Asking questions isn’t always straightforward, however. Cultural, language and racial differences can impact communication between pregnant patients and their health-care providers, making inquiries about safety or planning regarding a birth seem intimidating or impossible.
“We need to acknowledge the stress and anxiety around women of color wondering if people will listen to them and provide appropriate resources and culturally sensitive care,” says family nurse practitioner Rue Khosa, MSN, FNP-BC, IBCLC, the chief lactation officer and founder of The Perfect Push, a birth support clinic based in Redmond, Washington.
Before COVID-19, friends or family members could accompany expectant mothers to appointments to serve as advocates, but strict rules about who can join patients in clinics and hospitals have limited those opportunities. Patients can request medical translation services and extra time during appointments, or ask a family member or friend who can translate or serve as an advocate to join telehealth or virtual prenatal visits.
Acceptance and support
It sounds counterintuitive, but accepting — even embracing — the realities of a COVID-era pregnancy can help new parents find peace, says Khosa. “I remember at first, pregnant moms had a lot of resistance to Zoom baby showers and things like that, and some preferred to just wait out the pandemic and have a celebration later on, once things were normal again. But you can’t hit pause on this time in your life. It’s a moving target.”
That doesn’t mean the grief and anger new parents feel aren’t real or valid; those parents have every right to mourn the loss of the pregnancy they envisioned, notes Burns. “There’s definitely a mourning happening for all the stuff they’re missing out on. Even things like that belly rub from a stranger on the street that was an acknowledgement of the life inside you and a moment of human connection — that is missing now.”
Sharing feelings of grief and loss with a counselor can help new parents mourn the losses they’re experiencing and move them toward acceptance, says Khosa. “I’m a big fan of therapy, and there’s a lot of grief about the things new moms are not getting to experience.” Whether the grief stems from not getting a traditional baby shower or not being able to share your pregnancy and birth with your grandmother in another state, it’s valid and worth acknowledging, she notes.
Pregnancy, birth and new parenthood during COVID are undeniably hard. But there are a few distinct upsides that seem to be emerging, including increased interest in breastfeeding, says Khosa. “I see more moms determined to breastfeed, with everything going on.”
Even under the best of circumstances, birth and breastfeeding rarely play out as planned. But arming yourself with information and support before your birth is calming and empowering, and it helps make the experience less scary. New parents are taking note: More of them are planning ahead by connecting with birth and lactation professionals before their delivery date, says Khosa.
“One of the silver linings of this very dark cloud is that I’m seeing a lot more prenatal consults,” she notes. “With lactation support, there are a lot of things we can troubleshoot before the baby gets here, and that has been such a blessing.”
A more relaxed pace, fewer calendar commitments and less pressure to travel or visit far-flung family or friends with a new baby in tow also may be among COVID’s backhanded blessings. “Now is the time to go online and find your communities of support and talk this through with other parents going through what you’re going through, and picking and choosing what you want to be involved in,” says Khosa. “I recommend leaning into this as much as you can while allowing yourself to take all the breaks you need.”