- Experts say COVID-19 sheltering in place has added more burdens on the parents of new babies.
- They say it’s important for new parents to seek out virtual assistance from friends and family.
- They also advise that friends and family can develop meal trains to drop off food.
- Experts also urge new parents to practice self-care and share the load with child-raising and housework.
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New parenthood, especially the first year or two after a baby is born, can have a severe effect on one’s happiness and quality of life.
Furthermore, the depth of the challenges of the first birth experience can have a significant effect on parents’ likelihood of having additional children, research shows.
All of that was true before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, new mothers and fathers have been forced to physically distance themselves from friends and family for their safety.
In doing so, these new parents are losing critical early postpartum support they might have had otherwise.
“Parenting today is already much harder than it used to be,” said Dr. Harvey Karp, FAAP, the CEO of Happiest Baby and author of “The Happiest Baby on the Block.”
“In the past, parents could rely on their extended families — literal villages — to share some of the parenting load. Today, we think of having a nanny as a luxury, but the reality is that in centuries past, no couple ever had to do baby care all on their own. Families always had the support of several helpers,” Karp said.
“That level of support has evaporated over time, leaving parents with the totally false idea that normal parents are supposed to do all this on their own,” Karp told Healthline. “And now with shelter in place, we’ve almost totally lost the option to invite others over to hold the baby or help cook a meal.”
Self-isolation could also increase risks of postpartum depression and anxiety, experts say.
“We know that isolation and increased stress can trigger perinatal depression and anxiety. As can decreased wages, job loss, and lack of school support for other kids at home round out the stresses that can cause new parents (including fathers) depression and anxiety,” said Dr. Jonathan Goldfinger, an advisor to California’s surgeon general and the California Department of Health Care Services, as well as the senior physician adviser and medical director at Mahmee.
“This is why it’s so important to focus on parents’ mental and behavioral health both during shelter in place and once we begin the important but likely prolonged process of reengaging in person as a society,” Goldfinger told Healthline.
Focusing on mental health and social support at a time of self-isolation means turning to telehealth and virtual communities to replace those in-person interactions.
“During shelter in place, I’ve been working with new families and their village of support to have their needs met creatively or in the virtual space,” said Greer Kirshenbaum, PhD, a neuroscientist and doula whose company, Nurture Neuroscience, focuses on “creating layers of support for families” in the postpartum period.
Here are some action steps she suggests:
- To meet the need for lactation support, lactation consultants are doing virtual appointments and hosting daily lactation support groups online.
- Organize a meal train for families where loved ones can drop off meals to the family’s door or order takeout for the family.
- Create a “social meal train” to meet the socialization need for families, such as scheduling regular Zoom calls with family and friends. New families can also join online parent groups, parent and baby groups, music groups, and sleep support groups.
- Families and friends can send thoughtful gifts for baby and for parents to “show love from afar.”
- For self-care, encourage parents to spend 10 minutes a day for themselves. This can be as simple as a few minutes alone reading, breathing, or speaking to a loved one.
“With both partners at home, it’s more essential for both partners to have some alone time. During the pandemic, we can’t rely on people or programs to give us time for ourselves, and it’s necessary,” Kirshenbaum told Healthline.
In addition to these steps, several online services, such as boober and Phoebe, offer virtual postpartum resources that parents can access, including mental health support.
“All providers are currently virtual due to COVID-19,” Jada Shapiro, founder of boober, told Healthline. “Boober fast-tracked mental health therapists knowing there would be significantly more anxiety at this time, and has seen an uptick of people who have never seen a therapist before reaching out for support and help to get through these uncertain and stressful times.”
When there are two parents, attempting to share the workload of daily life and parenting — and for one partner to take on more when the other is unable — could be critical.
“When a parent is recovering from birth, I recommend their responsibilities be limited to feeding baby, resting, eating, and drinking,” Kirshenbaum said. “During this time, their partner can support them by assisting with feeding baby, diaper changes, preparing meals, replenishing water, cleaning, and taking out the garbage.”
“After the early days, it’s helpful to make a list of what needs to be done to take care of baby and around the home, and creating an agreement to assign responsibility,” she added. “I always recommend at least a daily 5-minute check-in where partners can talk about how they are feeling and how any unmet needs may be addressed.”
In traditional heterosexual relationships, a lot of that responsibility is likely to fall on dads.
In 2016, fathers reported spending an average of 8 hours per week on child care and 10 hours of housework, while mothers spent an average of about 14 hours per week on child care and 18 hours per week on household chores, according to data from the Pew Research Center.
Those are big improvements in fathers’ share of child care and chores over previous decades, but still far from parity between partners.
That means it may be incumbent on dads to step up during this crisis.
“At times you can feel pretty helpless,” said Dr. Jordan Spencer, a resident physician in internal medicine and psychiatry at the Medical University of South Carolina, and a father of an infant born in early March.
“I’ve made massive efforts to try to be as emotionally stable as possible myself,” he said. “Bad mojo seeps into a household, and the less often it’s you that brings it in, the better.”
Spencer agrees that sharing the load — and taking on more of the household load in the early days — is critical.
“Do all the classics: sweep, cook, laundry, make beds, mow the lawn. Don’t know how to do some of those things? Pull up YouTube and learn,” Spencer told Healthline. “Also try to let your spouse sleep. One hour of uninterrupted sleep is the most precious thing in the world. Give your partner the gift of sleep.”
Finally, new parents should try to limit their exposure to the news of the day for their mental health and well-being, Goldfinger says.
“Either unplug or limit screen time to positive video chats with supporters. Healthy screen time is almost always social, and we encourage parents to join online peer support groups,” he said. “Turn off that TV or social media feed. Excessive bad news causes stress. Period.”