Loneliness, homelessness, and risk to babies. Why new mums have struggled in the pandemic

Pregnant women and new mums have felt the strain during lockdown and specialists believe they should be higher priority. 

Last year Prime Minister Boris Johnson made a statement on March 16 that it was particularly important for pregnant women to avoid social contact. 

Christina Saullo, 34, from Camberwell, said this made for an “incredibly anxious” start to her pregnancy. Christina, a primary school teacher, said: “Everyday going into work was so daunting and stressful. I was terrified of catching Covid at school.” She said she was “plagued with fear” teaching a class of 30 without knowing the impact Covid might have on her and the baby.   

According to research conducted by Peanut, a social media app which connects women over motherhood, last year eight out of ten new mums struggled with navigating pregnancy and preparing for birth without access to in-person meet ups like prenatal classes.

A key area of concern for expectant mothers during the pandemic has been the prevention of partners attending scans and early labour.

Magda Fenikowska says the hardest thing is not seeing other people

For Magda Fenikowska, 31, from East Dulwich, the 12-week scan when she first saw her baby was the most important. She said, although her main focus was the baby’s health, she felt her partner Tom was missing out. “It was almost like a camp of men outside, saying goodbye to their wives and girlfriends,” she said.  

Elizabeth Duff, Senior Policy Advisor at National Childbirth Trust, said occasionally the worst has happened and a woman has been told her baby hasn’t survived the pregnancy. “She’s then had to get home on her own. I think everyone has found that a pretty unacceptable situation,” she said. 

NCT, the UK’s leading charity for parents, applaud maternity unit staff, doctors and midwives, who Duff said are “working under horrific strains and have all been doing their best.”

Maternity wards have struggled to keep expectant mothers separate from people who have tested positive for Covid. Magda, who gave birth to her first baby Mia in January, said there were people with Covid on her ward in separate rooms. “To suddenly be so close to Covid when you’ve been avoiding it for so long – it was really scary”, she said. 

Due to Covid restrictions, partners have only been allowed to be present when a woman goes into “active labour” when her cervix is four centimetres dilated. 

Christina said she had this “etched on her mind” when she went into labour at home in October.

“Once my contractions started, I convinced myself to stay at home until I couldn’t bear it anymore,” she said. 

Magda said even the staff at the hospital were unsure of the rules, and that she spent most of her labour feeling lonely and vulnerable.“I felt so emotional,” she said. 

NCT have urged solutions such as quick turnaround Covid testing so that if both parties test negative, a partner can be present throughout labour. Duff said: “We understand very much that infection control procedures must be maintained”, but that it had been a “pretty horrific story” for mums, dads and partners. 

The journey of pregnancy and new parenthood during the pandemic has been one of isolation. Michelle Kennedy, Founder and CEO of Peanut, said: “At a moment in time where pregnant women are experiencing such a monumental life change, the pandemic has created more isolation and uncertainty than ever before.”

Their survey, conducted in 2020, showed that seven in ten pregnant women suffered from extreme loneliness as a result of Covid, and over a third admitted to not coping well with feelings of isolation.

Christina Saullo thinks the experience of new mums has been glossed over

Christina said she felt most isolated following the birth, when her husband returned to work after paternity leave. “They say it takes a village to raise a child,” she said, “but how is that possible when your village is having to self-isolate or socially distance?” 

Wider families unable to meet newborns is an ongoing anguish amongst new parents during the pandemic. Magda’s grandma lives in Poland and is unwell. “They don’t know how long she has left,” she said. “It’s my dream for her to meet my baby, and I don’t even know if she will be able to. So I feel trapped.”

Social and travel restrictions have also increased strain on new parents who would otherwise rely on family to help support them before and after the birth. According to Peanut, one in five expectant mums have only seen their family once or twice since last March, if at all.

Joint research conducted by Best Beginnings, Home-Start UK and the Parent-Infant Foundation reveal that many families with lower incomes and from Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities have been hit harder by the pandemic and were less likely to receive the support they need. 

Home-Start Westminster, a charity who support families experiencing difficulties, said they are seeing more cases of new and expectant mums having problems with housing. Indu Dua, Coordinator at Home-Start Westminster, said the number of referrals they are receiving from those in temporary accommodation has increased during the pandemic. 

Dua referred to one new mum who was unable to claim benefits as she had no fixed address.

“She was 37 weeks pregnant. It was just before Christmas and she was very anxious. She asked us, ‘Where will I go with my baby?’

Dua said there had also been cases where due to hostel policy women were unable to return once their baby was born. “Such cases are rising”, she said. 

The mental health of pregnant women and new mums has been a concern during the pandemic, and some specialists worry this will have lasting effects. According to Peanut’s research, almost two thirds of pregnant women said they worried the pandemic will continue to affect their mental health after giving birth.

Dua said Home-start Westminster are seeing more referrals for counselling than they did pre-pandemic. She said the services are there, but lockdown has made it harder for women to access them. “Counselling has to be done without their children, and there’s nowhere they can find childcare arrangements at the moment,” she said. 

Although many organisations have taken their services online, not all mums are able to access those resources. Dua said the families they work with may struggle to use platforms like Zoom. “Sometimes where there are dominant mental health issues they find it difficult to come online at all,” she added.  

According to the research by Best Beginnings, Home-Start UK and the Parent-Infant Foundation, only one third of parents expressed confidence in being able to access mental health support in lockdown. Dua said fear that the NHS is overwhelmed is preventing people reaching out, along with uncertainty whether voluntary sector services are still running.

The strain of the pandemic is not only damaging the wellbeing of new mums but has put babies at risk. 

NCT’s Elizabeth Duff said that in the first lockdown many health visitors were redeployed to other services, which, she said, was a clear example of “new mums, it’s fine. They’ll get on on their own.” She said this proved not to be true. 

“We’ve had sickening reports of damage to babies. Babies put at risk – not only their mental wellbeing but their physical wellbeing,” she said.

According to Duff, there has been an increase in the number of situations where the baby is seen to be at risk by social services. She said: “At the worst end of that scenario there are parents who are at the end of their tether with anxiety, depression, probably financial worries, housing difficulties, and sadly the baby suffers sometimes.” She said these cases were just the “tip of the iceberg” and that NCT wants the government to look harder to make sure help is available as much as possible from now on.

NCT believes new parents have not been high on the Government’s agenda. “It’s been a long way down the line before mums, dads and babies have been recognised as in any way people in need,” Duff said. 

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We understand the challenges new and expectant mothers, and their families, face during these difficult times. To ensure services are there for people who need them, specialist and inpatient perinatal mental health services have remained open throughout the pandemic – offering digital and remote support.” 

The government spokesperson said that the mental health of expectant and new mothers remained a priority and that they had provided £9.2m in funding to mental health charities to support people affected by the pandemic. “We are doing our utmost to ensure that mental health services are there for everyone who needs them, including people with pre- or post-natal depression,” they said. 

NCT have been alerting the different UK governments to possible lockdown policy changes for new parents. “Not trying to put unnecessary pressure on – but to point out where a tiny amendment to a rule would really help new parents and divert future health problems down the line,” Duff said.  

Organisations such as NCT and Home-Start UK have done their best to support new parents throughout the pandemic.

Indu Dua said at times they felt their “hands were tied”. Home-Start normally provides two hours a week of support in a family’s home, including activities with the children, a listening ear, or help with appointments when English is not the first language. “We are so needed to go back face-to-face so we can help our families more,” Dua said. 

Following Boris Johnson’s “roadmap out of lockdown” announcement on February 22, new parents are looking forward to restrictions being eased.

New mum Magda said: “Like everyone else we just have to wait for the lockdown to be lifted, slowly start to meet other people, get the vaccine and move forward – accept that this was our experience and that it’s going to be unique to us.”

She said it feels at times like new mums have been forgotten, but hopes that talking about her experience will make others feel less alone. Magda would like more conversation around the struggles currently faced by new mums. “It would make me feel like my issue is talked about, that it’s important. That what I’m feeling is legitimate.” she said.  

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