As of last week, the National Childbirth Trust (NCT) has switched its antenatal classes from face-to-face meet-ups to virtual classes, in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19 throughout both the UK and the world.
“We want to support mums and dads-to-be at a very stressful time while taking on board government guidance about social distancing,” says NCT chief executive, Angela McConville. “Because, while the precise mechanics of how COVID-19 is spread through a population are not yet clear, one thing we do know is that pregnant women have slightly compromised immunity.”
As the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) puts it, in its extremely helpful advice on coronavirus: “Generally, pregnant women do not appear to be more severely unwell than the general population if they develop coronavirus. As this is a new virus, how it may affect you is not yet clear… If you are pregnant you are more vulnerable to getting infections than a woman who is not pregnant. If you have an underlying condition, such as asthma or diabetes, you may be more unwell if you have coronavirus.”
Beth, a lecturer from Yorkshire in her mid 30s, is one of the many thousands of women in the UK currently preparing to give birth during a pandemic. Her response? To reach out.
“I didn’t know many people ‘out there’ who were pregnant because I hadn’t told many people,” she says. “When the self-isolation stuff hit I thought, Oh crap, I might need some more support. It was time for me to engage in some sort of community discussion about what was going on because I realised it wasn’t just me in this position and group support might help. I found out that an old friend was pregnant so we just invited a few people we knew to a Facebook group which we’re calling West Yorkshire Mama Gang and within no time there were 70+ members.”
Within the group, the main topics of conversation are trying to find out if supermarkets’ early opening policy for vulnerable people applies to pregnancy, tips for self-isolating, current hospital policy, doulas offering support, links to baby banks for anyone in financial difficulty, phone lines for breastfeeding support and links to the Pregnant Then Screwed website for anyone facing employment issues.
Beth was determined not to think of herself as fragile or vulnerable during her pregnancy yet as of 16th March, pregnant people have been placed in the vulnerable group by the Chief Medical Officer, meaning they are advised to take social distancing measures because of the pandemic.
She is facing this with as much humour as she can muster. “I had this vision of going to the gym in my final trimester. I thought I’d be striding through the corridors of work, doing everything I’d have normally done. I thought I’d power through, be the Hulk. Like some kind of determined mothership; nothing could get in my way. And now I’m incarcerated at home.”
“I have literally bought nothing to prepare for my new arrival but a vaginal dilator [which is not approved by the NHS but is shown anecdotally to perhaps reduce tearing during birth] and a cot!” says Beth with a grim laugh. “Everything I need is going to be bought online now, I might need some crisis gifts/donations if there is a full meltdown of the distribution system. In some ways, I’ve got licence not to think about a lot of those things that parents end up dwelling on before their baby comes: the right cot, the right this, the right that…I guess.”
The main advice, according to both the Royal College of Midwives and RCOG, is that it is essential to carry on attending antenatal and postnatal care when you are pregnant and have a new baby, to ensure the wellbeing of you and your baby.
According to their websites: “If you are well, you should attend your antenatal care as normal. If you have symptoms of possible coronavirus infection, you should postpone routine visits until after the isolation period is over.”
In all cases, people are advised to get in touch with their named midwife and check how services are being affected, because it varies from place to place.
A number of NHS staff may be self-isolating, which may mean appointments and scans being moved, while others may take place over the phone or via video conference. Some hospitals, such as Gloucestershire Royal Hospital, are restricting access to maternity wards to just one birth partner during labour, allowing only the partner to visit maternity wards, the delivery suite and birth units, and allowing no visits at all from children under 16.
“I have something really big to do, at probably the worst possible time of the outbreak,” says Beth. “So of course I’m reading absolutely everything I can about the risk, about the developments. But then I just think of all those women in all sorts of crises throughout history and how amazingly they’ve done.”
“If you have to give birth in your own home, you sort of have to grit your teeth and pray that your body can do that,” she adds.
Many women may now be privately preparing for a home birth but that is not suitable for everyone and hospitals, midwives and doctors will be doing their utmost to make sure that maternity wards are kept safe and kept open. It is important to discuss all your options with your midwife team and to take their advice seriously. Now is absolutely not the time to head into the woods with a stack of towels and a punchbag.
The whole experience – the waiting, the uncertainty, the hunger for advice and support – has, says Beth, made her feel incredibly humble. “Without sounding trite,” she says, talking to me via WhatsApp video from her small Yorkshire home, “I’m more empowered by those stories of how women can and do give birth to healthy babies, and do it remarkably well, in many different circumstances.”
For more advice as the situation develops, visit:
The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists website.
The NHS website.
The Royal College of Midwives website.
The government website for advice on social distancing.