Words By Megan De Meo
In England alone an average of 1,688 babies are born every day. This means that across the UK as a whole, tens of thousands of newborns have come into the world since the start of the pandemic. Parenting a new baby, whilst being a joyful and exciting time, always comes with challenges. The outbreak of Covid-19 and subsequent restrictions on day to day life has brought about new difficulties as well as exacerbating those that parents already faced.
A report by the Children’s Commissioner, published at the height of the pandemic, focused on the challenges of new parenthood during the Covid-19 pandemic. It found that children’s groups and playgrounds had been shut down and that, in some instances, police had stopped families playing together outside. This means that parents are unable to depend on their usual support networks and that infants are unable to socialise with their peers.
Whilst many families will be coping, it is increasingly difficult for local health and social services to reach out to those who are not. At the time the Children’s Commissioner’s report was published, the guidance from the government was that new birth visits should take place remotely unless the parents have been identified as vulnerable. Such guidelines were necessary to protect the health of not only families and health workers, but the community at large. But this has come at a cost.
Health reviews usually take place every month for the first six months of a baby’s life. For many new parents, these reviews are not only a check up on the health and development of their newborn. They are also an opportunity to have someone to talk to about any worries they are having and to be reassured that they are doing a good job. For others, it is a link with the outside world during a period when perinatal mental health problems make day to day life with a newborn much harder.
Covid-19, which has led to an increase in joblessness and poverty for many parents, has also exacerbated the current mental health crisis. This means that the necessity of targeting more of the state’s finite resources towards managing the pandemic has resulted in families receiving less support at a time of increased risks.
I spoke to Ashley, a mother of three from Hertfordshire, who is studying for her bachelor’s degree in Psychology at the Open University.
Ashley is in the last year of her degree and is considering deferring the final semester until a time when she has enough spare time and energy to put enough into it. Studying is always a tough task with a newborn but there are further difficulties to the constraints of life during a pandemic.
Much of the support usually offered to new mums has been cancelled. Activities such as toddler groups provide the opportunity for parents to speak to one another, to swap advice and concerns about childcare, as well as allowing babies to develop socially. Ashley said she is happy that she had her newborn when she did (she gave birth to a healthy baby boy in September) as many of these groups have begun to open again. It has meant that she is still able to access her support network as there are less restrictions on visiting friends and family.
Pregnancy is always a worrying and turbulent time, and expecting families have experienced additional challenges brought about by the pandemic. This has included questions of birth plans, who to bring to scans, grandparents being able to meet with expecting parents, and access to healthcare.
Throughout this period expecting mothers have not been able to take a partner or friend with them to scans. Ashley found this difficult, as she was worried that if there were complications she would not have a familiar face to support her. As well as this, scans are an opportunity for fathers and partners to bond with the baby before birth. In light of the importance of this, guidelines for hospitals and maternity to re-introduce access for partners and visitors has recently been published.
Ashley gave birth at Bushey Hospital where she was not allowed a birthing partner until she was four centi-metres dilated, the point at which active childbirth has begun. This meant that she was alone when she was induced – which leads to an intense kind of artificial labour. She told me that whilst she understands that such measures need to be taken to protect babies who are vulnerable to viruses, the experience was lonely and, at the times, she felt angry.
Once Ashley was home with her newborn she had less visitors than usual, and those that did come were alone. She said that in a way this was a positive thing as it gave her more time to spend alone with her newborn son. Her experience of lockdown had similar positive aspects as she was able to spend more time with her sons and experience first-hand how they interact with their schoolwork. On the other hand, she was worried about the lack of face to face interaction for everyone as well as her boys and that the repercussions of this would become apparent over time.
At Sussex, the onsite nursery is run by Co-operative Childcare. Their most recent intake, mainly babies around nine to ten months old, have never experienced life without the restrictions brought about by the pandemic. Despite this, staff have not noticed any particular difficulties for babies of this age attending the service. The member of staff I spoke to said that babies always struggle at first when settling into a new environment, but also that they are very resilient.
Parents however have found it harder to adapt to leaving their infants in the childcare facility. Due to the pandemic, parents are no longer allowed inside the building. This means that they cannot see their children playing and settling into the new environment. Staff have found that the main difference in the current running of the nursery is the need to reassure worried parents. They have also found that because of the move to online teaching that there are less students using the service. Most of the parents now using the facility are university staff rather than students.
Parents of newborns have had to deal with a multitude of changes to the normal experience of bringing a new life into the world. This has incurred both a personal and social cost, the full extent of which is yet to be seen.