Amid isolation, new mums are struggling to celebrate births during pandemic


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A new mum in a new home with no family or friends nearby — that is Sarah Jack’s lot, facing an undefined period of social isolation with a newborn baby and toddler.

Key points:

  • Some new mums and pregnant women are experiencing raised levels of anxiety giving birth during the coronavirus pandemic
  • Many are cut off from their family members and parents, and are worried about going to hospitals dealing with COVD-19
  • Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia reports a dramatic increase in calls for help from new or soon-to-be parents

The Sunshine Coast mother brought her son Charlie into the world just seven days ago amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The experience was poles apart from the birth of her daughter, Sophie, three years earlier.

“Just the anxiety levels about being in that hospital scenario, not wanting to be near sick people, was pretty stressful, so we were trying to get out of there as fast as we could,” Ms Jack said.

The nerve-wracking experience was made worse after doctors indicated that access to pain relief might have been compromised at the hospital.

“They asked me ‘what are you thinking for pain management?'” Ms Jack said.

“They said ‘we are trying to encourage people not to use the gas because it’s in an internal plumbing system and we’re just not sure about the safety of it right now’.”

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Planned help stopped at airport

Ms Jack’s husband has been deemed an essential worker and is due to return to the office in just over a week.

Originally she had planned to fly her mother from Canada to help her manage at home, but now — like many women who have become mothers during the pandemic — she is doing it alone.

Ms Jack and her husband have few friends to help, having only moved to Queensland from Melbourne at the beginning of February.



Photo:

Sophie meets her baby brother Charlie while the family remain in isolation at Queensland’s Coolum Beach. (Supplied: Sarah Jack)

“I wasn’t [initially] fazed because my mum was coming from Canada,” Ms Jack said.

“So I was like ‘even though I don’t have the friend support I’ll have my mum here for a month’, and I knew that was my safety net.”

While her in-laws live just a few hours away in Hervey Bay on the Fraser Coast, they are both immunocompromised, so visits are out of the question.

“It’s just been this perfect storm,” Ms Jack said.

“We’ve had to cut any resources that we could have to support us just to be safe, for them and for us.”

No visits while breastfeeding

One bayside Brisbane couple have found they are unable to visit their newborn together in hospital because of COVID-19 rules.

Matthew Porch said his daughter, born prematurely at 28 weeks in early February, was transferred this week to Redlands Hospital, where parents can only be in the special care nursery “one at a time”.

Mr Porch said he and his wife had been able to care for their baby together at the Mater Mothers’ Hospital in inner Brisbane, but were at a loss after transferring to Redlands to bring her closer to home.



Photo:

Matthew Porch and his wife have been unable to visit their newborn together. (Supplied)

“My wife is obviously sleep-deprived. She pumps every three or four hours, and for us to be denied working together, looking after our baby in a large room — it’s not a small room — I just don’t understand.

“I can go back and forth 10 times if I want to in this room … but I can’t be there sitting next to my wife while she breastfeeds.”

He has appealed for an urgent exemption, telling Queensland Health in an email: “Having a 28-week premature baby has been difficult enough and this policy has caused isolation to our family, and should this not be resolved as soon as possible, I foresee ours and many other families being significantly impacted.”

The visitor restrictions apply across all five hospitals in Metro South Health and go further than the Chief Health Officer (CHO) directive that “no more than two visitors may visit a patient at one time”.

A Metro South spokeswoman said: “We understand having a baby, especially one born prematurely, during an unprecedented global public health situation can be a stressful and difficult time for new parents.”

The spokeswoman did not say why Metro South went further than the CHO, saying it, “like all public hospitals, is following the public health directions of the [CHO] to ensure all patients, visitors, carers and staff members are as safe as possible while in our care”.

“Metro South Health wishes the patient and their parents all the best during this time.”

Rise in new parents seeking emotional support

While many Australians struggle with social isolation, it has been particularly traumatic for new parents.

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While Ms Jack is adjusting well, national mothers support group Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia (PANDA) said others have not been as lucky.

The service has seen a dramatic increase in calls for help from soon-to-be-parents and new mothers and fathers seeking support.

“We know that people have looked forward to celebrating the birth of their child, and when you can’t do that because you can’t have your extended family in the birth suite or coming to visit you after you’ve given birth, that’s really confronting,” chief executive Julie Borninkhof said.

“There is that sense of loss and grief for the fact that they’re not getting the birth that so many people have had, historically.”



Photo:

Charlie doesn’t know life before the COVID-19 pandemic. (Supplied: Sarah Jack)

Ms Borninkhof said its phone counselling service has noted a 30 per cent increase in calls for assistance, and that figure is growing by the day.

“We know generally one in five mums and one in 10 dads experience perinatal vulnerability as a result of anxiety and depression,” she said.

“The calls we’ve received have significantly escalated over the last couple of weeks, and generally the people that we know would be travelling okay at this stage are the ones that are reaching out more and more so now.”

Ms Borninkhof said PANDA was also concerned about new mums being rushed out of hospitals before they were ready.

“We all know babies don’t come with rule books, so we do rely — as mums and dads — on the information we gather while we are in the hospital,” she said.

Building online communities

The organisation is scaling up its service with many retired volunteers returning to man the phones.

And like many services, PANDA is using technology to connect with vulnerable people, developing a number of online resources specifically relating to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Services which are traditionally part of the pregnancy journey have also made the shift online.

Birth HQ is an organisation focused on providing antenatal and postnatal classes to families on the Sunshine Coast.

Founder and midwife Gillian Hacking said the pandemic was certainly having an impact on the emotional wellbeing of their clients.

“With COVID-19 and not being able to have access to resources that they would normally have access to — [resources] to help educate these parents — the anxiety levels are definitely increasing,” she said.

Ms Hacking said they moved to an online model to help provide support.

“We just feel that education is very empowering in a time which we all know can be very anxious and nerve-wracking,” she said.

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