OTTAWA — Sara Gordon is seven months pregnant and planning for baby number three. While she’s been busy preparing for a full house of boys, she never dreamed she’d be giving birth during a global pandemic.
“It can feel isolating,” she told CTV News. “With the other two boys, we had parties, baby showers, we had people coming in to celebrate. Now you’re on your own.”
Gordon says COVID-19 has taken a lot of excitement out of her pregnancy. The Ottawa mother’s scheduled appointments with her midwife have been shortened to 15 minutes, her husband can’t accompany her to ultrasound appointments, and her in-laws may have to wait months to hold the baby.
“It’s definitely more stressful, because giving birth anywhere is a risk now, your baby could contract COVID after the birth on accident,” Gordon said.
Early research from a University of Calgary study shows that pregnant women have stress levels 3-4 times higher than normal. Most are concerned about threats to their babies’ life.
While many mothers will focus on the health of their babies in the short-term, researchers are also concerned about long-term effects from that stress.
Catherine Lebel is an associate professor of radiology and the lead researcher on the ‘Pregnancy During the Pandemic‘ study, which is actively recruiting pregnant participants.
“We know that children of moms that have high depression or high anxiety are more at risk themselves of cognitive or behavioural problems, and are also at risk of mental health problems themselves, later in life,” she told CTV News.
The 1998 ice storm in Quebec and Eastern Ontario provides some insights. The Douglas Mental Health Institute in Montreal looked into how children were impacted by the storm more than a decade later. They found that many children born to mothers who experienced a lot of stress during that storm scored 10 points lower in IQ tests, had poor language skills and lower verbal intelligence than children born to less stressed mothers. Some of those in the womb when the power and heat were constantly out, were also born at lower weights.
“The ice storm was a big deal, but that was a small area, and for a small amount of time. We’re now into our third month of restrictions, with social interactions and work impacted, and remember this is affecting the whole world,” Lebel said.
Almost all participants in Lebel’s study also reported feeling more alone than usual due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
New mother Wendy Wiseman knows how that goes. She did everything she could to avoid a busy hospital by choosing a small birthing centre, but her newborn Ava developed jaundice and had to be taken to a hospital for two days. Her husband Peter wasn’t allowed to go in with them.
“The labour and delivery was a breeze in comparison to being alone in the hospital without my husband,” Wiseman said.
She credits Toronto nurses for coming to her aid and helping with baby Ava as she was still recovering from childbirth.
“I learned that, instincts trump all,” she said. “At the end of the day, my child needs to survive, and although I was healing, and certain manoeuvres were painful, I knew I had to do this.”
Despite obvious worries about hospitals with sick patients, Dr. Jennifer Blake, the CEO of the Society of Obsestricians and Gynaecologists of Canada says mothers-to-be should not be deterred
“Going into a hospital in Canada, is very safe when you’re pregnant, and when it’s time to give birth, it puts you where all the help is that you might need,” she said.
Blake added that the risk of a mother transferring COVID to her baby is very low. But if a mother does come down with COVID-19, Blake said, breastfeeding is still completely safe.
Blake does advise mothers to constantly wash their hands and wear a mask so the baby isn’t needlessly exposed.
But overall, “experience from all around the world shows babies don’t get really sick from COVID, maybe they get a mild illness, but then they get better quickly,” Blake said.
More than 300,000 women give birth in Canada each year.