Pregnancy and early parenthood in a pandemic: how does it affect mental health?
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused stress and anxiety for the population at large, but how does a global historical event of this scale, especially one tied to health and medical care access, affect mental health in pregnancy, family and infants? Professor Louise Newman AM explains.
The coronavirus pandemic and pregnancy
Being pregnant leaves women at risk of increased anxiety and other mental health complications, but this has become more common as a result of the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.
Pregnant women have reported a range of anxious concerns including fear of infection, the impact of the virus on the foetus, possible birth complications such as preterm delivery and importantly, their own mental health and capacity to manage the stress of the pandemic situation. For some women, there is also a fear of the future state of the world and concerns that this is not the time to have a new baby.
Work and financial insecurity concerns are also impacting families, which can lead to increased situational anxiety as well.
Isolation due to social restrictions, combined with less access to in-person support from family and friends, can allow mental health concerns to grow and worsen. The sense of community with others going through pregnancy is also lessened when in-person visiting is not possible.
Accessing medical care during pregnancy looks different during a health crisis
Many maternity and hospital-based services have had to reduce face-to-face care for pregnancy, meaning some women don’t feel as connected to their midwife or doctor. The lack of connected, strong relationships with healthcare providers can be stressful, especially for isolated or single parents.
In the absence of face-to-face care, phone services have reported increased numbers of calls – and increased levels of distress among callers.
Health practitioners not being able to see pregnant patients face-to-face also means it can be harder to identify signs of mental health concerns, which can be particularly challenging in people who have pre-existing conditions like depression and anxiety, which can be made more serious by both pregnancy and the COVID-19 crisis.
Giving birth in a global pandemic
Providing safe care to women giving birth, and infants needing special care, has been a particular challenge for hospitals during the pandemic.
One of the key ways hospitals limit infection spread is by limiting the amount of people allowed in the hospital, which has meant few or no visitors for women giving birth and directly after.
This has contributed to psychological distress, feelings of isolation and abandonment with some women developing depressive symptoms and concerns that they will not be able to parent effectively as the birth experience has been negative and traumatic.
Birth is usually a time of celebration and has a lot of cultural significance in many communities, which has unfortunately been disrupted by the threat of infection and the rules in place to prevent the spread of the virus.
Overall, the experience of pregnancy and birth in the pandemic has a major stressor for many families, which has the potential to significantly impact the early bonding between parents, families and their new babies.
Postpartum in a pandemic
Early parenthood is an intense time under normal circumstances, and is even more so during a pandemic. Support from healthcare professionals, family and friends is limited in the same way it is during pregnancy: in-person visits are less frequent.
Phone contact has been used as an alternative but many women report needing the reassurance of having their baby checked, weighed and measured by an experienced professional who can also support some of the issues that can arise in early care, feeding and settling. These checks are important for the parents as well, as mental health issues are often picked up by practitioners such as Maternal and Child Health Nurses.
Parents who do not have access to direct support from family and other parents and can become increasingly anxious that they are not parenting well. If parents in these situations become depressed, these feelings of inadequacy and guilt can be overwhelming.
The role of mental health services for parents during the pandemic
Responding to the needs of families and infants in the pandemic is complex. Public health measures are definitely needed in order to limit the spread of COVID-19, but side effects of isolation can cause issues that negatively affect pregnant women and new parents.
Services and professionals to support new parents with the feelings of disappointment and grief that their birth experience was impacted and their real concerns that they are having a new child in a changed and uncertain world.
Mental health services also play a critical role in supporting parents in the early days of their baby’s life, establishing a strong attachment relationship and gaining confidence in their capacity to care for and emotionally support their baby.
Confidence is critical in parenting, and parents need to feel assured that their baby can thrive even in times of pandemic. Community helps with this a lot and, for isolated parents, rebuilding a sense of connection and relationships with other new parents can happen through social media and other distance platforms.
Connecting with families is vital when stress can play a major role in escalating family conflict and in increasing risk to infants. Protecting the most vulnerable families and infants should be placed high on the post-pandemic recovery list of actions.
Mental health support for expecting and new parents
If you’re an expecting or new parent and you’re struggling with isolation or anxiety due to the coronavirus pandemic, there are a range of options available:
- PANDA supports people dealing with depression and anxiety around the time of pregnancy and early parenthood via their helpline and online resources.
- If you are feeling concerned about your health, whether mental or physical, at any time, contact your GP.
- Albert Road Clinic is a premier specialist private psychiatric facility located close to Melbourne CBD. The Clinic provides inpatient, patient and community based mental health services in a comfortable, discreet and supportive environment. The clinic’s mental health services cater to all ages, and is home to a number of child and adolescent psychiatrists who offer support with perinatal and family issues. To seek further information about Albert Road Clinic’s mental health services please visit the Albert Road Clinic website, reach out via the contact us form or by calling 03 9279 3594 to have a confidential conversation with one of our staff members.
Ramsay Health Care also offers specialised perinatal and postnatal mental health services across Melbourne at hospitals including Mitcham Private Hospital and Peninsula Private Hospital.
Professor Louise Newman AM is a specialist in Perinatal and Infant Mental Health and early life Psychological Interventions at the Albert Road Clinic. Professor Newman focuses on Women’s Mental Health, support for early parenting and developmental difficulties of infants and young children. She is trained in Infant and Parent Psychodynamic Therapy.