Pregnant in a pandemic: How expectant parents are coping with the coronavirus crisis

Increased anxiety, reduced midwife appointments, hospitals at breaking point and fears of a rise in miscarriages – how the joys of a coming arrival have been turned upside down by Covid-19 

Colin Drury
Thursday 16 April 2020 11:37 BST
Baby steps: we spoke to three couples about the challenge they’re facing
Baby steps: we spoke to three couples about the challenge they’re facing

Soon after she discovered she was pregnant eight months ago, Zohra Benjamin was told by a midwife that, amid the excitement to come, there may be difficult moments too: back pains, extreme fatigue, ungodly thrush.

It was September back then.

The midwife did not predict, reasonably enough, the single incident which has since left this mother-to-be feeling most unsettled: an ambulance turning up for neighbours across the road.

“They were taken away in oxygen masks by paramedics in full PPE,” the 29-year-old tells The Independent today. “It was devastating but also – I don’t want to sound selfish – it was scary because you realise this thing that’s killing people, it’s here in your street.”

Pregnancy, though self-evidently one of life’s great joys, comes rife with risk, worries and anxieties at the best of times.

But in this age of coronavirus, parents-to-be are experiencing a level of stress, isolation and upheaval not known since the Second World War: “I feel,” says Zohra, from her home in Sheffield, “like our baby was conceived in a safer world to that which they’re being born in.”

In many ways, it’s worth saying from the start, Covid-19 is not the horror which a new infection could have been for pregnant women. Neither they, nor children, appear especially susceptible to the virus. Babies, indeed, seem to be among the most resilient. So confident are doctors of this that their advice to new mothers who contract the illness is to keep breastfeeding should they wish.

Nonetheless, the coronavirus’s arrival in the UK in January has led to huge disruption for those expecting – including instructions to undertake extreme self-isolation, the cancellation of an estimated half of face-to-face midwife appointments, and heavy restrictions being placed on now-stretched maternity wards.

A spike in calls to the National Childbirth Trust helpline suggests anxiety is skyrocketing among parents-to-be – itself a danger to the pregnancy – while there are also fears that forcing new mothers into a lockdown that precludes help from friends and family will lead to a dangerous rise in postnatal depression.

Tragically, at least one woman, a patient at Whittington Hospital, in north London, is known to have died giving birth while suffering with the infection.

Just as worryingly, perhaps, the NCT is concerned that the reduction of in-person appointments with healthcare professionals ahead of the birth will mean fewer chances to identify complications early and, as such, fewer opportunities to intervene. Neither charities or support groups officially want to go on the record to say it but, among healthcare professionals on the ground – themselves working in at-risk roles – there is some worry that social distancing could lead to a rise in still births and miscarriages.

“There is no [evidence that may happen],” says Sarah McMullen, head of insight and engagement at the NCT. “But what I would say is we’re worried about women not having the face-to-face support that might help diagnose issues when necessary. So, it is very important that, if women are experiencing anything they do think may be an issue, they must pick up the phone and insist on being seen. That is the key advice we want out there.”

Steve Waining and Zohra Benjamin managed to speak to a midwife in person (Steve Waining)

As it happens, Zohra and partner Steve Waining, 38, did just that.

After they were told a midwife appointment was to be arranged as a phone call, the couple pushed, successfully, to keep it as a face-to-face meeting because there had been earlier questions about the bump’s growth.

“We were confident enough to do that,” Steve says. “In the end, everything was okay but, for another couple, maybe they wouldn’t have insisted and something could have been missed.”

The pair say they have so far managed to navigate the fast-changing landscape. Because both are supply teachers, they have been able to self-isolate together after schools were closed. Because the pregnancy started well before the lockdown, they have largely managed to buy what they needed for the new arrival before shops shut and deliveries became so difficult to get.

Nonetheless, they still find themselves facing huge unknowns, not least after the birth in late April.

“There’s no breastfeeding sessions or support groups now,” says Zohra. “My mum was going to come and stay with us but now she won’t be able to – my sisters either. It’s pretty rubbish she won’t get to see her grandchild for months possibly. And it’s my first time with this little thing, so I’m feeling a bit like, ‘Oh my god, am I going to look after you right?’”

But, then, she says, women have been doing this since forever: “So I’m telling myself everything will be perfect, it’s not the first few months we would have wanted but we just have to cope.”

Marie Louise, another first-time-mum-to-be – and herself a midwife in Essex – feels the same.

The 28-year-old, who is due in August, says that she has done two major things during the progression of her own pregnancy: limited her daily news intake and built what she calls a “digital tribe”.

The news limitations, first, are to combat the stress of life lived in a pandemic.

“This is not how any of us would have envisaged this period of our lives,” she says. “But being stressed about something that can’t be controlled doesn’t help.”

Such anxieties left unmanaged, she points out, could have an adverse effect on the pregnancy itself.

“So, I would say to other expectant mums to keep yourself up to date with the clinical advice and how you can keep you and your baby safe,” she says. “But don’t get obsessed with the news. Focus on what you can do to stay healthy.”

The digital tribe, she says, is a makeshift way of surrounding herself with support, albeit remote.

“Just because my friends and family can’t visit to help out, doesn’t mean that they can’t be there for me with encouragement,” says Marie, whose book on pregnancy, The Modern Midwife’s Guide to Pregnancy, Birth and Beyond, was published last month. “Make sure parents are set up with webcams, perhaps, or have a WhatsApp group of strong friends – whatever works for you.”

This is key NCT and NHS advice too, as it goes. An estimated one in four women suffer postnatal depression, a figure widely expected to rise in the lockdown as those support networks – physically, at least – are removed. Trying to reduce the impact of this isolation is key – whether that be through connecting with specialist charities, practising mind exercises or using other online tools.

For Marie, herself, the hardest thing so far was having to go for the 20-week scan without partner Andy Good, a 30-year-old black cab driver, because of limitations on visitors to hospitals.

“He was gutted,” she recalls. “He wanted to be there, of course, but we appreciate these are extraordinary times.”

It would have been hard to be there alone, she admits, should there have been bad news. “Women will find themselves in that situation,” she says. “And it will be very difficult.”

Steph Bowers is worried partner Ian Bryan could develop Covid-19 symptoms and miss the birth (Steph Bowers)

Being alone is something that concerns Steph Bowers. More specifically being alone in labour.

Most hospitals have already introduced rules allowing only one person can be present at the birth.

But for Steph, a teacher, the nightmare scenario would be partner Ian Bryan, who works in finance, showing symptoms of Covid-19, having to go into self-isolation and not being there at the big moment.

“There’s no reason that should happen to us more than anyone else,” the 33-year-old says. “In fact, because he’s able to work from home, we ‘re pretty fortunate. But it’s just something that plays on my mind, what if I have to deliver in a room full of strangers all wearing masks?”

It is unlikely to happen, Ian reassures her. “I’d be devastated if it did, though,” the 31-year-old adds.

The couple, from Sale, Greater Manchester, say the pregnancy has been unlike anything they could have imagined.

“When it first started emerging, I remember being upset there might not be a baby shower, silly stuff like that,” says Steph. “But pretty quickly the idea of worrying about that just seemed ridiculous. The priority just became staying fit and healthy. In that way, the lockdown was good. It added certainty to what was happening.”

They had planned on using these last few weeks of pregnancy on spending quality time together – meals out, day trips, that sort of stuff – before the new born came. “Well, we’re spending time together,” says Steph. “It’s just it’s in the house.”

The baby, due at the end of May, will potentially land around the same time restrictions are lifted. “But I’m still not sure I’ll want too many people cuddling my baby,” says Steph. “I can’t help it, it will put me on edge.”

It is a point all three couples make. For them, perhaps like the rest of us, the end of the lockdown will not mean an end to their worries; nor a resumption of normal life.

Still, back with Zohra and Steve, they are keen to end all this on a positive.

“The advantage of having a baby in a pandemic,” says Steve, “is it will make number two seem like a piece of cake.”

Yes, says Zohra. “And number three and four.”

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in