For new parents, lockdown robbed them of a joyous birthing experience
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The Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown has deprived us of many things. We’ve lost loved ones along the way, while for many it’s forced us to reassess what’s important in our lives while grappling with the crippling fear of anxiety of when it will all end.
It’s been hard for new parents. We’ve heard stories of fathers not being allowed in the delivery room due to strict Covid protocols or mothers not having their birthing plan go according to their wishes.
The introduction to parenthood during lockdown has not been a happy one for many couples, and while this time is one to be cherished, it’s been a breeding ground for increased mental health illness among first-time parents.
A recent study conducted by an all-female research team at the UCT found this to be the truth while exploring the birth and new parenting experiences of South African parents during lockdown.
The study, published in peer-reviewed journal Women and Birth, revealed that the Covid-19 lockdown placed added strain on new parents’ mental health and symptoms of depression were common.
“Women who delivered during lockdown were more likely to have negative birth experiences than those who delivered pre-lockdown and the lockdown exacerbated the usual challenges of birth and new parenting,” said Dr Tammy Phillips – senior lecturer at UCT’s Division of Epidemiology & Biostatistics.
Dr Phillips and the rest of the team conducted a cross-sectional online survey with consenting parents of babies born in 2020. The majority of the 520 respondents were females (95%) who gave birth at private hospitals (86%).
Parents with children born under lockdown were less likely to have their preferred choice of birth method, had worse self-reported birth experiences, were less likely to have skin-to-skin contact with their babies after birth and were frequently unable to have someone at their birth that they had wanted to be there, the findings showed.
“In our study, the prevalence of probable depression (63% mothers, 29% fathers), was higher than usual in this context (33%), and much higher than worldwide pre-Covid-19 estimates (13%),” Phillips said.
“Our study showed that mothers who had predominantly negative emotions about their birth were more likely to be depressed, and that having a pre-term baby, not having the delivery method of your choice and Covid-19 affecting your birth experience led to more negative feelings about the birth,” she said while suggesting that parents need support to overcome these challenges – “digital methods of care provision during the postpartum period are effective.”
Lack of support
Hard lockdown during level 5 also proved challenging for new parents with the ban on sales of essential baby products and difficulty accessing maternal health care. For breastfeeding moms, it was hard seeking support from family members and lactation consultants.
Prior to lockdown, birth registrations took place within hospitals. This was then cancelled during lockdown, making registration difficult, added Dr Phillips.
The increase in C-sections during this time (63%) further exacerbated challenges with infant-mother bonding, breastfeeding issues, an increased risk of non-communicable diseases and adverse effects on children’s sensory perception and neuropsychiatric development.
“Our findings show that most mothers wanted to have a natural birth, and that a change in delivery method was directly associated with a negative birth experience which was associated with probable depression. Due to these potential issues, caesarean sections should only be used when medically necessary,” Phillips said.
In May last year, The Perinatal Mental Health Project (PMHP) launched a one-stop online resource developed in response to Covid-19 and the lack of targeted messaging for vulnerable mothers who are concerned for their children and families.
The platform, called Messages for Mothers (M4M), curates content that answers common questions like “Must I wear a mask?", "Will I get a child support grant?" or "How do I explain Covid-19 to my children?”.
“We’re actively campaigning that the materials are made available on zero-rated websites and on the National Department of Health WhatsApp line,” said PMHP director and Associate Professor Simone Honikman.
“We plan now to move into a phase of getting the messages out on radio, either as pre-recordings that can be prepared or with live interviews with experts who speak a range of South African languages,” she said.
Many of the women they are targeting also face overcrowding, gender-based violence and food insecurity. On the M4M website, these women can find immediate help and information in three main areas – maternal and mental health, physical health, and parenting in the pandemic.
- Visit messagesformothers.co.za for more info
- Lockdown babies: www.lockdownbabies.co.za
- Sadag mental health line: 011 234 4837