Bringing Up A Baby—During A Pandemic
There’s no guidebook for how to have a baby during a pandemic. Experiences like having loved ones present at the delivery, or inviting grandparents over to meet a newborn have not been an option for everyone during this time. Lockdowns across the U.S., and varying procedures at hospitals and clinics, have created a whole new set of limitations and concerns for new parents.
Jess from Baton Rouge: “I was pregnant during the first few months of coronavirus, and I gave birth in May to a son, and it was crazy. They screened me for coronavirus when I was actively in labor at the doors of the hospital, my husband and I wore masks the entire time and I gave birth with no medication.”
Matthew from Fresno: The strict limitations on visitors during the pandemic has been the difficult part, my wife had to go into the hospital at 32 weeks pregnant due to complications and spend two weeks in the hospital most of which she could not have any visitors at all. I was able to be there for the delivery, but none of my or her family have been able to meet our daughter yet due to those visitor limitations.”
Sarah in Houston: “I’m about to become a first-time mom. My husband and I found out we were pregnant back in February with our little girl who’s due at the beginning of October. And we were really excited, until we got basically locked down into our house. So we’ve been quarantined in Houston, Texas now for a hundred and some-odd days, and this pregnancy is definitely not what we had thought that it would be.”
Many new parents are dealing with changed birth plans, less in-person health, and the realization that there isn’t much data about how COVID-19, pregnancy and childbirth mix.
Joining Ira to talk about what it’s like to have a baby during COVID-19 are Oge Emetarom, a birth doula and certified lactation counselor at Your Baby Your Birth in Brooklyn, New York, and Mati Hlatshwayo Davis, a clinical instructor at the Infectious Diseases Clinic at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Davis is also a physician at the John Cochran Veterans Hospital.
Be a part of our conversations about COVID-19. We’re collecting your stories and questions about for future shows. Record your voice message on the SciFri VoxPop app.
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Oge Emetarom is a Birth Doula at Your Baby Your Birth in Brooklyn, New York.
Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis is a Clinical Instructor of Infectious Diseases at Washington University School of Medicine and ap hysician at John Cochran VA Medical Center in St. Louis, Missouri.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. I don’t know about you, but everywhere I turn I see someone who is pregnant. They’re due to have a baby this year. It’s like a COVID baby boom. But here’s the thing. Some joyful parts of having a new baby, like having loved ones present at the delivery, or inviting grandparents over to meet the newborn, aren’t always possible right now. The lockdown has created a whole new set of unsatisfying limitations and concerns.
About a month ago, we asked you on our Science Friday VoxPop app if you were going through a pregnancy or childbirth during the pandemic, and for you to share your experiences. We heard from a lot of you.
JESSIE: I was pregnant during the first few months of coronavirus. And I gave birth in May to a son. And it was crazy. They screened me for coronavirus when I was actively in labor at the doors of the hospital. My husband and I wore masks the entire time.
MATTHEW: The strict limitations on visitors during the pandemic has been the difficult part. My wife had to go into the hospital at 32 weeks pregnant due to complications and spend two weeks in the hospital, most of which she could not have any visitors at all. I was able to be there for the delivery, but none of my, or her, family have been able to meet our daughter yet due to those visitor limitations.
SARAH: I’m about to become a first-time mom. And we were really excited until we got basically locked down into our house. So we’ve been quarantined in Houston, Texas now for 100 and some odd days. And this pregnancy is definitely not what we had thought that it would be.
IRA FLATOW: Those messages were from Jessie in Baton Rouge, Matthew in Fresno, and Sarah in Houston. Thanks to everyone who shared their experiences on the Sci-Fri VoxPop app. Joining me to talk more about what it’s like to have a baby right now are my guests, Dr Mati Hlatshwayo Davis, clinical instructor of infectious diseases at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. She’s also a physician at the John Cochran VA Medical Center.
MATI HLATSHWAYO DAVIS: Thank you for having us.
IRA FLATOW: And Oge Emetarom, a birth doula and certified lactation counselor at Your Baby, Your Birth in Brooklyn, New York– Your Baby, Your Birth.com.
OGE EMETAROM: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
IRA FLATOW: Madee, I want to first say, you have a personal knowledge of this issue because you recently had a baby. Congratulations.
MATI HLATSHWAYO DAVIS: Thank you so much. I have a three-month personal experience with this. So I was pregnant and had our second daughter, Naniso, on May 16th. So experienced what it was like to be pregnant right at the beginning of this hitting. And then I have been on maternity leave until last week during this. And also, I just happen to be an infectious diseases physician on top of that. So it’s been an interesting year.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. Yeah, well, I want to know from your perspective what it’s like to be someone who’s involved with infectious diseases and giving birth during this pandemic. It must be out of this world.
MATI HLATSHWAYO DAVIS: Out of this world is exactly the right way to describe it. Because the juxtaposition between what it would normally be like to be an infectious diseases physician in response to this– and understand, this is the nature of our job. I say every year to two years we have something. In fact, when I was pregnant with my first child, who’s 3 and 1/2 years old, Zika was around.
And so this is the nature of our jobs as infectious diseases physicians. But to then have to be pregnant during a pandemic that, by definition, there was just not a lot of data in the beginning. The first and only thing in my mind was protecting the health of my unborn child. It was very difficult to reconcile those two positions.
IRA FLATOW: You said we didn’t have a lot of data at the beginning. Have we collected enough data to know now with any sort of certainty how COVID impacts pregnancy and childbirth?
MATI HLATSHWAYO DAVIS: Certainty is a very difficult word to use in science. Because we never get to a certain point, I would say, especially by the evolving nature of these types of infections. But what I would say, I don’t know that anyone is comfortable giving slam-dunk recommendations on how things are impacted. Because we haven’t had enough longitudinal experience with the virus to know how it affects pregnant women, and certainly how it affects newborn babies.
IRA FLATOW: Is that because we don’t prioritize this to collect the data?
MATI HLATSHWAYO DAVIS: No, I think it’s just a timing thing. We’ve only been dealing with this since the top of the year, at least in this country. I will say, though, that decisions that could have been made in the beginning by the national leadership in regards to how we approached this could definitely have us in a much better position to explore these options. But by the nature of science, you just need longitudinal experiences to be able to collect and analyze the data that we would need to to know.
IRA FLATOW: Oge, as a birth doula, what are the biggest concerns you’re hearing from your patients?
OGE EMETAROM: More so from Mati’s perspective, understanding is this virus going to affect my baby? If I go into hospital settings am I at risk? Now people are deciding to have home births or at birthing centers instead of going into the hospital setting because they are concerned.
It’s a big fear that arises within my clients, of this is a virus that’s attacking anybody. At first we thought it was a certain demographic, but it’s anyone right now. And so, obviously, already being pregnant, as it is you’re already at higher risk for certain things to affect you. And now having this virus, they’re concerned about their babies.
IRA FLATOW: And that concern, does that extend to you actually being present in the room with your clients? Or is this being done remotely like everything else is?
OGE EMETAROM: Definitely at the start of the pandemic within New York City there was mandated that doulas could not go into the hospital setting to support their clients. And actually at first, their partners weren’t allowed to go into the hospital settings as well. So people were birthing alone in this environment. I’ve had to adapt and be able to support my clients virtually in certain hospital settings where they aren’t allowing doulas to be present.
IRA FLATOW: And how does that affect your one-on-one relationship with your clients?
OGE EMETAROM: In so many ways. For me, the doula work is such an intimate relationship with my clients. I’m face-to-face with them, prior to COVID, interacting with them on a personal level. So now we kind of remove that into this virtual space, where I’m having prenatal via Zoom.
Or when someone’s in labor, I still go to their homes to help them labor at home, but then I’m taking an Uber ride with them to the hospital, and saying, OK, let’s switch over to a virtual connection. If it’s a FaceTime, or Zoom, or whatever way, but hospitals again, the Wi-Fi– they may or may not be able to hop onto the Wi-Fi.
But having to navigate that while laboring is something that clients weren’t usually used to doing prior to COVID. So for me, it’s just taken away the human aspect of being able to connect with my clients and help them breathe, give them certain positions to go into. I can still do that virtually, but it’s just completely different.
IRA FLATOW: We asked our listeners to tell us how they were dealing with the situation. And we got lots of messages from listeners who had gone through pregnancy or childbirth during the pandemic. And we found that there was a common theme for a lot of them. And that was that they felt really stressed and anxious. I want to play a reaction from Alex in Minneapolis. Here, she’s talking about getting ready to give birth.
ALEX: I have insane anxiety, not knowing if my husband would be able to be present, having my close friend as a backup in case my husband was showing signs, having a fever, et cetera.
IRA FLATOW: Oge, what are you hearing about emotional and mental well-being from your clients?
OGE EMETAROM: Oh, I’m getting these calls. It’s like I have huge amounts of anxiety. I don’t know if I should be going outside to get sunlight. Even though it’s important for pregnancy, I don’t know if I should step outside and potentially contract this virus from someone passing by me. So just already the anxieties that build up with first-time parents, or even second-time parents, or multis– like I am about to raise a child in this environment.
And now on top of that, you have an environment where there is a pandemic happening. So within my practice, I encourage meditation and mindfulness during pregnancy to connect with baby. And I’ve just been noticing a lot more of this conversation. I just had this fear on top of birthing, but now I have this fear of contracting a virus that could potentially transfer utero.
MATI HLATSHWAYO DAVIS: I can so relate to that caller, because when we were planning for my birth there was so much uncertainty around what was going to be allowed and what wasn’t. So in the same way that Oge is talking about the policy’s changing on the support system for folks being allowed in the hospital, I remember vividly reading the newspaper articles around people in New York not having their partners with them. And I was only a couple weeks away from having our baby.
So I immediately was anxious about the fact that my husband wouldn’t be allowed in the room. Already my mother, who lives in South Africa, was not able to be with me. And so this was a time where I was stripped of all of the support systems that I would normally have. And it was enormously worrisome and isolating in a way that I didn’t expect.
I felt like my pregnancy was hijacked, to be very honest. I was fortunate that they changed the policy just before I had our daughter. And so my husband was with me. And I was also extraordinarily fortunate to have a team of nurses and a longstanding relationship with my OB, where I felt very supported on the day. But to Oge’s point, not every woman has that. And it can be extraordinarily damaging to not have the support of doulas like her and other people in your support network available for you to have this extraordinarily important experience.
IRA FLATOW: Oge, are you hearing the same thing about hospital policies through your clients?
OGE EMETAROM: Yes, things are changing, honestly, daily. And so clients are told that they will be tested. The birthing person will be tested once they get into the hospital, sometimes maybe 24 hours in advance if it’s an induction. But they will be tested. And their partner will have their temperatures checked. And so they’re not getting tested.
And what’s interesting is that they go into the labor and delivery room, and they’re laboring after being tested, and they don’t– they may not get their test results until 3, 4, or 5 hours after. They may have already had their baby. And so if a result comes back that they’re positive, baby most likely goes into NICU. And so they’re losing that immediate skin-to-skin first-hour connection with their babies. And it’s interesting as well that the partners aren’t getting tested.
And so in the space of having that, but now going back and forth with your partner can come– no, you’re going to have to– it’s only one person in the labor delivery room, you may or may not be able to bring your doula. So it’s, honestly, every single hospital it’s changing. And once you get there, you won’t know until you get there.
IRA FLATOW: It was interesting to hear from Mati that she felt her pregnancy was hijacked. Is that something you’re hearing from your clients too?
OGE EMETAROM: I’ve heard that actually a couple times. Because already, as it is, the birthing person wants to feel like they have– it’s their baby, and it’s their birth, even if it’s in a hospital setting. And so now having the idea of, OK, I may or may not be able to have my partner, I may not be able to have the support that I need. And then nurses, or OBs, or the provider just letting them know that, OK, this is what has to be done, it completely takes the humanity from it, in just being able to say, OK, this is what I want for my birth, but there’s regulations and policies in place now, just to make sure the staff is protected and the birthing person’s protected.
IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC studios. In case you’re joining us, we’re continuing our conversation about what it’s like to have a baby during the COVID-19 pandemic with our guests Dr Mati Hlatshwayo Davis, clinical instructor of infectious diseases, Washington University School of Medicine in Saint Louis. She’s also a physician at the John Cochran Veterans Hospital. And Oge Emetarom, a birth doula and certified lactation counselor and Your Baby, Your Birth in Brooklyn, New York, Your Baby, Your Birth.com.
Do you expect we might be seeing something different, some different outcomes during COVID in terms of postpartum health being different?
MATI HLATSHWAYO DAVIS: I’ll just say that I absolutely do believe so. I think women have an unfair expectation placed upon them by society as it is in regards to having children and the responsibilities around that. There’s already studies that have come out at Washington University regarding how that’s been amplified since COVID. And certainly, one can see a link between that and mental health. But Oge, you’re probably in a much better position to speak to that than I am.
OGE EMETAROM: Yes, for sure, there definitely has been an increase in just people requesting for postpartum doula support. As Mati mentioned, not having the support of her mother, and if they don’t have that connection, that village to support them, they’re just left in the space in their homes with their partner or alone.
And so the support, especially within the first month, two months, three months is very, very important for, one, for their mental health. Two, like Mati mentioned, to just being able to get some sleep and feel like a human being, maybe even take a shower. And so in this space, for me, in my experience, and in my work, I’ve seen a lot of people requesting, you know what, are you able to support postpartum? And knowing that I’ve already been exposed to them and with them in the space during their birth.
Depending on if they’re birthing or in the hospitals or at home, they’ve already been with me. So in that space of like, OK, then this doula can be our postpartum doula, and being able to support them in that way. But not everyone is open to that as well, with the concern of the virus. And so again, support has shifted virtually.
And so I’m supporting people for lactation visits over Zoom, seeing if they are getting their latch right, talking with them if they just want someone to talk to. They’ve been in this house with their babies, they want to be able to connect with another person and let out their emotions.
But for doulas, we’re concerned with postpartum depression after birth, after labor and birth. And so I’d be interested to see what the numbers and any reports look like in terms of the increase in postpartum depression.
IRA FLATOW: Oge, do you expect to be delivering a lot of babies nine months from now?
OGE EMETAROM: I actually do. I’ve been already getting some inquiries that people are due in January, February. So this pandemic is going to possibly have a baby boom because of COVID, which is interesting to think.
IRA FLATOW: Mati, do you think that we’re going to be talking about this years from now, as this will be COVID babies? People of this generation will be known as COVID babies?
MATI HLATSHWAYO DAVIS: We joke about this all the time. I think it could go either way. I think there’s significant mental health component to this. And how people respond could be very much in one direction or the other, where for some people it’s certainly not incentivizing them to go that route. But for some people, that’s really, we’re at home, we’re with our families, we have these opportunities. And we’ll see this baby boom too.
I’ll be very interested to see the way where it goes. I’ll honestly say, though, that I anticipated that a lot of people who were at least making plans for growing their families would choose not to do so because of the current climate. And that really hasn’t been the response across the board. I think now that, unfortunately, this is becoming a part of our new normal, people are planning for this, maybe not with the ideal plan they had in mind, but having made adjustments and moving forward.
IRA FLATOW: Well, thank you both for sharing your personal experiences and your insight. This has been very, very educational for all of us. I want to thank you again. Dr Mati Hlatshwayo Davis, clinical instructor of infectious diseases, Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis. She’s also a physician at the John Cochran Veterans Hospital. And Oge Emetarom, a birth doula and certified lactation counselor at Your Baby, Your Birth in Brooklyn, New York, at the website of the same name. Thank you both for taking time to be with us today.
MATI HLATSHWAYO DAVIS: Thank you.
OGE EMETAROM: Thank you.
Kathleen Davis is a producer at Science Friday, which means she spends the week brainstorming, researching, and writing, typically in that order. She’s a big fan of stories related to strange animal facts and dystopian technology.
Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science Friday. His green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.