How the COVID-19 Pandemic Affected New Mothers

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The COVID-19 pandemic has been a wild ride, especially for families who welcomed new babies during the last year or so. They faced giving birth with limited support, concerns about how COVID-19 could affect their pregnancies and babies, and questions about how to get postpartum support when most people were keeping socially isolated. Now, researchers are starting to study the impacts of this very difficult time.

Researchers from the University of Southern California Center for the Changing Family recently released a research brief called “Expecting A Baby During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Mental Health Concerns in Pregnant Women Warrant New Treatment Approaches.” The authors surveyed 641 people who were pregnant in spring of 2020, when many people in the United States were socially distancing and much less was known about the virus that causes COVID-19. These pregnant individuals reported heightened distress that manifested as higher levels of anxiety, depression, and stress than in similar populations before the pandemic.

The researchers hypothesize that the increased mental health challenges that they saw align with the decrease in social support experienced during social distancing. A 2007 study published in the Journal of Women’s Health highlighted the importance of social support networks in maternal mental health, and the COVID-19 pandemic allowed a real time evaluation of that importance. Nearly two-thirds of people surveyed as part of the new study experienced loneliness and negative impacts on social relationships as a result of sheltering in place and social distancing. Many participants also experienced depression and anxiety during pregnancy and postpartum periods that occurred during the pandemic.

The researchers that designed the University of Southern California study are not the only ones who have found that mental health challenges were much more common in pregnant and postpartum people as a result of measures designed to curb the spread of COVID-19.

For instance, a survey of 900 pregnant or postpartum individuals that took place in April and May of 2020 and has since been published in Frontiers in Global Women’s Health also highlighted “a substantial increase in the likelihood of maternal depression and anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic.” Interestingly, those authors determined that risk for anxiety and depression were lower in individuals who exercised for 30 minutes at least five times each week. Another study, published in December 2020 in the Journal of Affective Disorders, reported that it’s typical for 10 to 25 percent of pregnant people to be affected by anxiety and depression symptoms. During the pandemic, the authors found, those numbers were much higher: 37 percent for depression and 57 percent for anxiety. Yet another study of 725 pregnant women in San Francisco during March, April, and May of 2020 revealed that they were almost twice as likely to have symptoms of depression than people pregnant before the pandemic.

Nearly all the researchers studying the effect of the pandemic on maternal mental health have recognized the dire challenges, as well as the need for treatments that can help improve the situation. In the University of Southern California research brief, for instance, the authors highlight the effectiveness of telehealth approaches, including virtual therapy sessions via video chat and apps that can connect new parents with community and mental health support. They also highlight the importance of integrating mental healthcare with primary care, so that it is easier for people who need it to access.

If you are someone who had your baby during the pandemic and feels anxious, depressed, or traumatized by your experiences, the new research shows that you are not alone. There is help for you out there. Consider speaking with your doctor or midwife about your challenges and asking for a referral to a therapist. Talk therapy can be highly effective in treating anxiety and depression, and many medications are helpful in this regard, as well as being safe if you are breastfeeding your baby.

Connecting with other people who experienced the same thing may also help. If you are vaccinated, consider reaching out to other new parents in your area who might want to meet for a masked or socially distanced visit. If you are not vaccinated or just not excited about leaving the house, you might find a group of people with common experiences online.

Abby Olena
Dr. Abby Olena has a PhD in Biological Sciences from Vanderbilt University. She lives with her husband and children in North Carolina, where she writes about science and parenting, produces a conversational podcast, and teaches prenatal yoga.

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