As the global pandemic changes the nature of perinatal care, expectant and new mums are facing unique challenges with less support than ever. And experts are concerned about the impact on their mental health.
New mum Jen Vo-Phuoc tells Essential Baby that worrying about her son Max's health has been the most anxiety-provoking aspect of becoming a mother amid COVID-19.
"I worried about the small things because we no longer have access to the community-centre nurse," she says. "I have been worried about something serious happening to him and whether it is safe to go to a hospital, sit in a GP waiting room or visit a pharmacy."
For Ms Vo-Phuoc being unable to see family and friends has been tough, particularly at the start of the pandemic when it was unclear how long restrictions would last.
"My mum has been such an amazing help with Max and so whilst we text and talk on the phone, I really felt that absence," she says. "As a very social person who is also close to family, I worried about Max not being comfortable or feeling safe with our family members and close friends - if he can't be cuddled or even visit friends, how will he know that it's OK to be with people other than his parents?"
Ms Vo-Phouc and her Irish husband had planned a trip to Ireland later this year which has also been cancelled. "Not knowing when we might be able to have Max meet the other side of the family has been sad for us," she says.
Epidemiologist Jenn Ducombe, program manager at Gidget Foundation Australia, tells Essential Baby that during outbreaks, we can feel a range of emotions, from guilt to sadness, loss and frustration. "There is a lot of uncertainty, and this can make anxiety and stress levels increase," she says.
It's something she and her team have seen first-hand over the past few months, with a 50 per cent increase in visits to their website and a 40 per cent increase in calls. And while one in five women in Australia experience perinatal mental health issues, Ms Ducombe says that figure is likely to be much higher at the moment.
Chris Barnes, Clinical Lead at Gidget Foundation Australia, says they're receiving calls about a number of issues during the pandemic including relationship problems, an increase in anxiety and depressive symptoms, significant feelings of loss and grief, unemployment and living with uncertainty. "Pregnancy and childbirth bring joys along with many challenges," she says. And the pandemic has only heightened these.
To celebrate World Maternal Mental Health Day on Wednesday May 6, Gidget Foundation Australia are (virtually) launching a new Gidget House location in Clayton Victoria, in conjunction with Jean Hailes.
"This is an opportune time to launch our new location in Clayton because now, more than ever, expectant and new parents need support," Ms Barnes says.
Parents can also access Gidget's telephone counselling service, "Start Talking" regardless of where they are located.
"Our psychologists specialise in perinatal counselling," says Ms Barnes. "Many of our existing clients say that Gidget's counselling services have been a life changing experience. And, because it is free, it helps families who would otherwise struggle to pay for specialist psychological counselling."
While research into the impact of the pandemic on expectant and new mums' mental health is limited, one study of chinese pregnant mothers provides some initial insight.
A team from the University of Sydney and Fudan University in China, surveyed 1,800 pregnant women from 22 provinces in China in February during the early phase of the coronavirus pandemic. They found that 90 per cent of expectant mothers experienced some form of mental health problems - including stress, anxiety or depression.
Professor Mu Li of the University of Sydney told Essential Baby, that while pregnancy is a stressful time and physical distancing and misinformation on social media "have no doubt added more stress", she says it's difficult to estimate how high that number will be in Australia without an epidemiological study.
"My message to pregnant women who are looking for information on antenatal care and COVID-19 is to make sure they get information from trusted sources such as the Australia New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. Our research found this to be vital to reducing the risk of suffering from mental health problems during this pandemic."
For Ms Phuoc, walks with bub and connecting with friends and family over video chats have helped her own emotional and mental health during this time. "We have been really lucky with the weather lately and have taken advantage of this with lots of walks which has been great for my physical and mental wellbeing in all of this," she says.
The mum adds that the period of self-isolation has also given her the opportunity to take life "nice and slowly".
"I have the time and space to read all of Max's cues and be really responsive to them," she says, adding, "I can't deny that this quiet period has meant that the house is probably more tidy than it would otherwise have been."
Ms Barnes agrees that we might see positive changes amid the coronavirus.
"Post-traumatic growth may occur as people reflect on this challenging time," she notes. "Most difficulties highlight what really matters in life. People may have discovered new hobbies or ways of living that make them happy.
"And, our new found sense of neighbourliness – kindness and compassion to others – is something we should continue."
PANDA's National Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Helpline 1300 726 306
Monday – Friday, 9am – 7.30pm AEST/AEDT
For 24 hour support call Lifeline on 13 11 14