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Thursday, May 6, 2021

Pregnant during a pandemic: How COVID-19 has affected pregnancy and childbirth

Expecting parents are facing difficult decisions, changing experiences to stay safe

Veronica Friello and her son, Bodhi, born on April 19. // Photo courtesy of Veronica Friello

By Olivia Hobson

The COVID-19 pandemic has created uncertainty for pregnant women in Whatcom County. 

PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center and midwiveries in Bellingham have implemented new policies to provide safe deliveries. Those policies, as well as the ongoing “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, are providing safety for the price of pre-COVID-19 normality. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, pregnant women are not more susceptible to COVID-19 than non-pregnant women. However, they are more likely to become seriously ill if infected with COVID-19, and newborns are highly vulnerable to the virus when they are born. It is unlikely that mothers can transmit COVID-19 to the unborn baby, the CDC said. 

At St. Joseph, the Childbirth Center has implemented a variety of new regulations to prioritize safety, Childbirth Center Nurse Manager Gallit Eni said. Those regulations include all workers and visitors being screened before entering, nurses and midwives using respiratory filters and limiting the number of support people allowed in the room to one. 

Limiting who can attend the birth is an important yet difficult regulation, Eni said. Some women hope that their close family and friends can attend the birth or visit the baby once it’s born, and disallowing that can cause strong disappointment, Eni said. The Childbirth Center has begun to offer Zoom viewings for women and partners who wished for more attendance.

The biggest challenge has been having to adapt to new information and strategies every day. The constant updates have been difficult to keep up with, but her staff has managed the fast pace well, Eni said.

Even with these new changes and challenges, the Childbirth Center is still operating and performing at its regular capacity. Patient feedback has been resoundingly positive, Eni said. 

“We’ve had to put together new processes to deal with the COVID pandemic, but everything else has pretty much stayed the same,” Eni said. “We are still able to deliver and take care of our patients safely. Everyone is still coming in and everyone is still having babies.”

Catriona Munro, founder and owner of the Bellingham Birth Center, said that she has noticed an increase in the number of women seeking alternatives to hospital births. Expecting parents are either concerned about exposure to COVID-19 in the hospital, or they wish to avoid the one person limit in place at the hospital, as the birth center is allowing for two support people, Munro said. 

The birth center has also implemented new safety precautions, such as screening patients and visitors upon entrance and requiring midwives to wear masks during labor, Munro said. The changes they’ve implemented feel strange for the center, but are important to provide the safest experience possible, Munro said. 

“It feels weird to not be able to communicate through facial expression, but everyone understands,” Munro said.

The birthing center is only an option for women who have had low-risk pregnancies, so there are some limits as to whom the birthing center can service, Munro said. But the birthing center provides an alternative option for women seeking care during the pandemic, which is an important resource, Munro said. 

There is a possible psychological impact of the pandemic on expecting parents, said Erin Antenen, a psychotherapist in Fairhaven who specializes in pregnancy and postpartum mental health. It’s important for new and expecting mothers to bolster their mental health while facing the uncertainty and lack of flexibility when preparing for their birth in the current circumstances, Antenen said. 

“Pregnancy is a time of excitement, but it’s also a time of a lot of uncertainty. Now that level of uncertainty is much, much higher,” Antenen said. “It’s an area where people need lots of support even during normal times. I’m concerned this added stress and uncertainty will increase those numbers of people experiencing pregnancy-related mental health issues.” 

Antenen said that in addition to a changed birth experience, there are also many routines and traditions that will be sorely missed for some women. Things that build community, like prenatal classes, baby showers and celebrating a new baby with visitors are things that many parents are going to miss, Antenen said. 

To cope with those losses, Antenen recommends that expecting parents find ways to feel present and empowered during the birth experience and that they have patience with themselves. 

“Practice self compassion, give yourself some grace and keep in mind that there’s no rulebook for how to be pregnant or parenting during a pandemic,” Antenen said. “For some people, that might mean allowing yourself space to grieve for what you had hoped your pregnancy and postpartum would look like.”

Despite the losses, there are still many resources available to expecting parents during this time, Antenen said. Prenatal classes and support groups, pregnancy and postpartum therapy, and medical check-ups have all been digitized, and while they may not be the same as in person meetings, they still provide valuable information and support, Antenen said. Antenen recommends Postpartum Support International and the Bellingham Center for Healthy Motherhood, which both provide support for expecting and new mothers during this time of uncertainty and isolation. 

Veronica Danielle Friello gave birth to her son, Bodhi, at her home in Maple Falls on April 19. Through all of the uncertainty, her experience has been positive, she said. 

“I look forward to telling him his birth story and just what a crazy time it’s been, yet how beautiful it’s been for us and our family,” Friello said. “It was really special and we’re grateful to have that experience.”

Friello said that she has been able to experience some silver linings of the stay-at-home order. Her and her partner are fortunate and able to work from home, which she is very grateful for. They have been able to find space to rest and connect with their new son, Friello said.

They haven’t been able to have visitors, and Bodhi has yet to go out in public. They’re putting off his first public trip as long as possible, she said. In the meantime, they’ve been able to connect with resources and support digitally, by FaceTiming friends and family and online support groups, which is very important, Friello said. 

Bodhi is now part of the generation that will not know a world before COVID-19. Friello said that while his world will be different than before, they will adjust.

“I think it’s just going to become our new norm. We are resilient. Whatever is going to happen will happen,” Friello said. 

The pandemic has demonstrated the capacity for people to work together and overcome personal anxieties, Eni said. The teamwork and perseverance demonstrated by the staff at the Childbirth Center has been a success, and she said that she’s proud to be able to continue to provide safe experiences. 

Munro echoed that sentiment, saying that she’s happy that the Bellingham Birth Center has been able to come together as a community. Being prepared to help one another and be there for fellow midwives and moms has been a success. 

“I feel really proud of our community at the birth center and how the group has come together,” Munro said. “I feel like we’ve really had every one’s backs in supporting and being there for each other.”

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