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Story | Research
6 May 2020

How new and expectant mothers are coping with mental health challenges in a pandemic

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Two first-time mothers discuss the anxieties around giving birth in the unique circumstances surrounding a global pandemic

As the world remains in a state of uncertainty, pregnant women are facing perhaps one of the biggest mental health struggles during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While surprises and challenges are a part of every woman’s journey through pregnancy and birth, dealing with the strain of a global pandemic was not something they would have anticipated. World Maternal Mental Health Day, which takes place on May 6, usually sheds light on women’s perinatal and postnatal struggles. This year, it has a wider meaning and relevance.

Maha El-Akoum

Dr. Felice Watt

Not only is there a lack of information on how COVID-19 affects expectant mothers, but the infectious nature of the disease also puts them at risk during every visit to the doctor. Apprehension about potential changes to birth plans, fewer family members being present during delivery, and general anxiety are all now part of the experience for women around the world currently getting ready to give birth.

I could no longer plan for the next day or the next week, let alone the remainder of my pregnancy and the delivery of my baby.

Maha El-Akoum

Maha El-Akoum, a first-time mother-to-be who is due to give birth at Sidra Medicine, a member of Qatar Foundation, says she is “quite overcome” by the unexpected backdrop to her pregnancy. She describes herself as a meticulous planner, and says: “When this situation unfolded, I suddenly found myself thrown into the deep end. I could no longer plan for the next day or the next week, let alone the remainder of my pregnancy and the delivery of my baby.”

Advised to stay inside and work from home, and with malls and shops closing at short notice, she was faced with an array of challenges in acquiring necessities to prepare for her baby’s arrival and her own postpartum needs. The biggest impact, however, was being unable to meet her family and parents for extended periods of time. El-Akoum was diagnosed with gestational diabetes at the start of her pregnancy, which meant she had to be extra-cautious.

“It was quite a stressful time for me – having a high-risk pregnancy and being told to limit visits to the doctor was not easy,” she says.

I think every mother who’s currently expecting or has recently given birth should make it a point to stay connected to friends and family.

Arpi Abouhanaian

“Any symptom is usually a cause for concern, so being unable to see my doctor made it that much harder. But I’m so grateful for the measures being taken and understand that it’s for my own safety and that of my baby. It also helped that I was able to virtually connect with my doctors for checkups or unforeseen changes in my condition.”

Coping with the situation has been hard for El-Akoum, but she keeps her spirits high by staying in constant touch with loved ones virtually and limiting how much information she takes in about the pandemic on a daily basis. She’s also taken up hobbies to keep herself occupied and her stress levels low.

Arpi Abouhanaian, who gave birth at the end of December 2019, has also found that the postpartum experience during a pandemic is a particularly unique one. Being a first-time mother, she finds it important to remain positive and understand that crises happen. “During volatile times like these, it’s imperative that we trust that it will end and focus on the positive,” she said.

She has been advised by doctors to stay at home as much as possible to protect the health of her baby and stay safe. “I’ve been working from home, which helps with the anxiety and any overwhelming feelings that come from staying inside with a newborn,” she explains.

Anxiety is a normal response to a difficult, stressful or threatening situation, and there are some basic things that we can all do to maintain our mental and physical wellbeing during this pandemic.

Dr. Felice Watt

“I’ve also been exercising a lot, which really helps boost my mental health and is so important. Going out for a walk, even alone and maintaining my distance from other people, really helps. And just because we have to stay at home doesn’t mean we can’t be with our loved ones virtually. I think every mother who’s currently expecting or has recently given birth should make it a point to stay connected to friends and family.”

Dr. Felice Watt, Division Chief of Adult Psychiatry for Women’s Mental Health at Sidra Medicine, said: “While pregnancy and the period after having a baby is an emotional time, we have noticed increased levels of anxiety in many pregnant and postpartum women as well as their families during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Arpi Abouhanaian

The COVID-19 pandemic has created additional challenges – and anxiety – for new and expectant mothers. Photograph: Africa Studio/Shutterstock

“Anxiety is a normal response to a difficult, stressful or threatening situation, and there are some basic things that we can all do to maintain our mental and physical wellbeing during this pandemic.”

“In addition to proper hand washing and applying social and physical distancing measures, it is important that pregnant women or women who have recently given birth, are getting adequate sleep, eating well and exercising regularly. The support of family members is critical during this time.

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