For the millions of women who celebrated their first Mother’s Day in May 2021, their transition to motherhood occurred in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Preparing for childbirth can be joyful and exciting, but restrictions on COVID-19 altered the prenatal care of many women and forced some mothers to deliver your babies, without partner or family support. Others clashed separation of their babies immediately after birth.
Future parents also missed many celebrations and rituals commemorating the transition to fatherhood: baby showers, christening and christening ceremonies, neighbors going through a meal, or grandparents traveling to meet the new family member.
For the past seven years, our laboratory has studied new parents, after couples since pregnancy during the first year postpartum. The COVID-19 blockades last spring stopped face-to-face data collection when the campus closed. But while it stopped our usual research, the pandemic created an opportunity to investigate a unique form of prenatal stress in real time.
The effects of prenatal stress can last a lifetime
A tragic natural experiment helped spark a field study that researchers call “fetal origins of adult disease,” which explores the links between pregnancy stress and subsequent health.
At the end of World War II, the Nazi army cut off food supplies to the Netherlands and plunged the country into famine during the winter of 1944-1945. Babies in the womb during what became known as “Winter of Dutch famine“He showed lifelong differences in cardiometabolic health. Because it was a clearly defined period of hunger, it even allowed researchers to investigate the specific effects of the trimester, finding that babies exposed to hunger at the beginning of pregnancy had different results than those exposed at the end of pregnancy. ‘pregnancy.
The COVID-19 pandemic shares many similarities with these events, including widespread loss of life. But it is also unique. Communities often come together to grieve and rebuild after natural disasters. The need to maintain social distance during the pandemic caused many people to be isolated from each other, especially many pregnant women, a high-risk population who might have chosen to pursue stricter social distancing measures.
What happens when a pregnant mother’s face-to-face social network shrinks or disappears overnight?
Social connection, mental health and COVID-19
Scientists know that social support cushions the risk of mental health problems in mothers. Therefore, our laboratory wondered how pregnant women could be affected by the sudden isolation of blockages, along with the economic and health concerns of the pandemic.
We tried to answer this question by hiring 760 future parents (641 pregnant women and 79 parents) between early April and July 2020 to participate in our Study of coronavirus, health, isolation and pregnancy resistance (CHIRP). The week of April 7, 2020, coincidentally, the same week we launched our study. represented the high point of the “refuge in place” behavior in the US, with Americans spending 93% of their time at home. We converted our usual battery of questionnaires in the lab into an online format and it was posted on social media and in online parenting and pregnancy groups. Currently, our preliminary findings are in the process of peer review in an academic journal.
Only about 5% of pregnant women who responded to our survey had a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19 in the spring of 2020 and a similar number (4.7%) had experienced the death of someone close due to the pandemic.
However, 97% reported that their community had issued a stay-at-home or foster care order. In addition, 61% of women reported that the pandemic had had “very” or “slightly” negative negative impacts on their social relationships. Most women estimated that at the time of the survey they had much less contact than before the pandemic began with neighbors and community members, co-workers, close friends and family. On the other hand, 42% reported much more time spent with their partner than before the pandemic.
These changes in social contact appeared to affect mental health: nearly two-thirds of respondents said they had experienced at least some loneliness during the previous week. A similar number felt more lonely than usual due to the pandemic. In addition, approximately three-quarters of our sample reported that the COVID-19 pandemic had an overall negative effect on their mental health.
To investigate further, we asked our respondents questions about the Beck Depression Inventory, a tool that mental health care providers use to assess the symptoms of depression. We were surprised to see that the average score of pregnant women in our sample was above the threshold that doctors typically use as an indicator of depression.
Half of the women in the sample reported clinically significant symptoms of depression. Similarly, more than half, 62%, said they were experiencing clinically significant anxiety symptoms. These proportions are more than double those we saw in our pre-pandemic sample.
Our conclusions are not unique: Several other studies of pregnant and postpartum women to own an increase in anxiety was reported during the pandemic. For example, a study not yet peer-reviewed of pregnant women in the San Francisco Bay Area it was also found that 51% of their sample scored above the clinical limit of depression, compared with 25% of a demographically matched pre-pandemic sample.
The stress of COVID-19 could have long-term effects
Given that maternal stress during pregnancy can affect fetal development and shape the long-term health of mother and baby, our preliminary results are a cause for concern. We are currently collecting birth charts from our sample to measure gestational outcomes, such as birth weight and preterm birth, which have been linked to prenatal stress.
It remains to be seen whether the stress of the first wave of the pandemic will have lasting effects on mental health. Some new moms experimented silver linings of the pandemic, as a greater ability to work from home after birth and maintain a breastfeeding relationship. At the same time, the pandemic further affected already affected communities structural racism i poverty. Our research may find different mental health trajectories, with pandemic blockages that aggravate some risk factors, while perhaps exerting protective effects on other families.
Meanwhile, our first batch of results suggests that these pandemic babies and their parents are a special population to follow in the future. Currently, pregnant women may face an easier transition to fatherhood now that restrictions in the delivery room have relaxed and social routines are back to normal. But uncertainty, fear and pain from the numerous losses of the pandemic it can persist even when the world reopens.
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Convincing evidence suggests this counseling interventions such as speech therapy can it will not only relieve but also prevent mood disorders in the period immediately before and after birth. Situations in which primary care and mental health care are integrated and pregnant women can access psychotherapy through their OB-GYN practices that can help treatments reach the most needy mothers. The pandemic eased many barriers to telehealth as health care providers switched to online visits; this format can also show a promise to reach out to families who are still reluctant to make face-to-face visits.
We continue to follow our participants at three, six, and twelve months after the birth of their baby to see how their mental health changes over time, with plans to expand the follow-up of the first year. While babies born in 2020 may not remember the pandemic first hand, its effects may shape their early lives in a way we are just beginning to measure.
Darby Saxbe, Associate Professor of Psychology, USC Dornsife College of Arts, Arts and Sciences i Alyssa Morris, Doctoral student in clinical psychology, USC Dornsife College of Arts, Arts and Sciences