Having a new baby is never easy: it’s difficult to manage the stress of birth, sleepless nights, and juggling of childcare and domestic responsibilities, especially for first-time parents. Some also experience postnatal depression, which is estimated to affect 23% of women in Europe after the birth of a child (men also experience postnatal depression, though the numbers are not so clear).
Add to new parenting the impact of lockdown, and that figure could rise sharply, a new study published in Frontiers in Psychology suggests. Working with women with babies aged six months or younger in the UK during the first COVID-19 lockdown, UCL’s Sarah Myers and Emily H. Emmott found that almost half met the threshold for postnatal depression — double the average European rates.
Participants were 162 London-based women aged between 19 and 47 years old; half were first-time mothers, while the other half had up to three other children. Women first filled in a survey which measured symptoms of postnatal depression, then shared their own personal social networks, listing up to 25 people and explaining who they were and what the relationship was.
After sharing this information, participants also reported who in this network they had seen in person and who they had chatted with on the phone, via video call, or by text or WhatsApp over the last few weeks. Contacts included family, old friends, colleagues and so-called “mummy friends” — non-family female friends who also had children of the same age.
The results showed high levels of depressive symptoms among the new mothers, with 47.5% reporting symptoms that met the threshold of diagnosis of postnatal depression (34.6% of the group reported particularly high levels of symptoms).
In terms of social networks, participants (like many non-parents) saw few people during the weeks leading up to the survey. On average, women had seen one family member, three other general friends, and no “mummy friends”, though they were speaking to many different social contacts via social media, phone call or text. Many women were going without support from family members, however — 47.5% had seen no relatives at all.
Social contact was also linked to depressive symptoms: the more social contacts participants saw in person, the less likely they were to report symptoms of postnatal depression, suggesting a link between social isolation and depression.
The team also explored the experience of new parenthood during lockdown through open-ended questions about how the pandemic had affected mothers’ self-esteem and their relationships with their babies. Some mothers felt positively about lockdown, stating that it had given them more quality time with their baby and an increase in time partners were home and able to help with childcare. “It has been a great help having my partner home every day as it means most days I can get at least an hour to myself which I use to exercise or catch up on sleep,” one woman wrote. “Also I think it has been an amazing positive on my partner’s ability to build a bond with the baby and co-parent.”
However, in concordance with the high levels of depressive symptoms, other mothers struggled. Some felt a “constant burden” of parenting (“I think lockdown has made me feel like I’m not a person in my own right anymore, just a mum”), while others pointed to the relative inadequacy of online support. One woman pointed to the many video calls and chats she had during this period — but noted that the physical isolation of lockdown led to a lack of practical advice and support.
Finally, others saw lockdown as a time of “lost opportunities”. “You’re only a first time mum once, and I was really looking forward to this time and making new mum friends,” one woman wrote. “I think I am most sad about missing out on that.” Others pointed to worries about development — concerns about whether children would recognise family members having only met them on FaceTime, missing physical and mental milestones, and lack of play with other children.
The team points to two key insights: firstly, that it “takes a village” to raise a child, with social networks crucial to supporting both parents and babies in the time after birth; and secondly, that the impact of COVID-19 on new parents should be considered in healthcare interventions, with key focus on face-to-face, rather than digital, support from health and social care services.
Overall, the study highlights the unique (and incredibly stressful) circumstances into which new parents were thrust during the COVID-19 pandemic — and now that lockdown has eased, the results suggest, it may be an opportune time to reach out to new parents in your own social networks.