BETHAN Sayed MS, Plaid Cymru Shadow Minister for Post-16 Education, Skills and Innovation is calling for “more support” for new parents in the light of the COVID crisis, that the Welsh Government should ensure that all new parents and their children have had an equivalent to a 6-week check and that also more must be done to raise awareness of the mental health support that is available.
The Coronavirus pandemic has meant that many neonatal support services have stopped or changed considerably, meaning that many new parents have not had the support they might otherwise have expected.
Ms Sayed – a new parent herself – says she has been “overwhelmed” by the number of parents who have contacted her to say that they haven’t had the support that would usually be available to them and warns that the isolation may have “untold” negative impact on the mental health of new parents.
In a survey conducted by Bethan Sayed MS, of 234 parents (227 mothers, and 7 partners), 55% said they had not received a post-natal check, and 92% of people who gave birth during lockdown said they felt isolated. Some new parents also reported that they had not received expected contact from their Health Visitor, and most parents haven’t been able to introduce their new arrivals to their family, other than through window panes, or via webcam.
Dr Sarah Witcombe-Hayes, Senior Policy Researcher at NSPCC Cymru says that the COVID-19 crisis “has caused unprecedented pressures and heightened anxieties for new parents.”
Bethan Sayed added:
“As a new parent myself, I’ve been contacted by many in the same situation as me, and while we’ve had much to celebrate and had much support in the hospital from midwives and maternity staff, the overwhelming sense I’ve been left with is that so many new parents have felt isolated. Given that the first three months we were unable to mix with other households, and most health appointments have been over the phone, new parents have been largely on their own, without the support network they’d usually benefit from. This isolation means that any problems that remain undiagnosed are only going to get worse during this pandemic, and some new parents are in danger of being left behind.
“The importance of social media can also not be understated. I joined a Welsh language group called grŵp Mam a’i Babi and another south Wales parents during COVID. Both have been really good to connect during this time for moral support when we can’t physically see others.
“My call to the Welsh Government is twofold: Firstly, the 6-week checks are too important to stop, and it really concerns me that these may have stopped for many new parents. Secondly, where support services are still available, all new parents need to be made aware of them. The lack of consistency across both counts is really disappointing.
“There seems to be a theme – for those parents who have had children before, they count themselves ‘lucky’ that they can rely on their previous experience, to help them understand what support they need. For new parents, who may be unaware of the help and support that’s available, and are left to fend for themselves, the effect on their mental health is untold.”
One of the mums who has been in touch with Ms Sayed is Katie Jones from Porthcawl.
Having had her firstborn in New Zealand, with none of her family around her, Katie moved back to Wales for the birth her second child, where she thought she’d be surrounded by a network of friends and family. Shortly into the lockdown, Katie soon recognised the same feelings that isolation can cause.
“When I had my firstborn, I only realised afterwards how much isolation had affected my mental health. I did everything I could to ensure I had the support of my family for the birth of my second child, but then coronavirus came along, and I realised I was just as isolated as I was before. That’s why I set up a Facebook group ‘Porthcawl COVID Mums’, as I thought there might be one or two other mums in the same situation, who would welcome support from someone else going through it.”
“I couldn’t believe it when over 100 new parents joined in the first 24 hours! It goes to show that many other parents are feeling alone. I feel like I’m getting less support from my Health Visitor than if we’d not been locked down. I feel lucky that I can draw on my experience from my firstborn, but I do worry for first-time parents – they must be so lost.”
Another new mum is Michelle Townsend from Cardiff who gave birth prematurely to her daughter in October. While Michelle was delighted her baby was allowed home after four months, it happened just as the lockdown was starting.
“We are fortunate to still have fortnightly visits from the neonatal outreach team, they have been a lifeline for us but we’ve only had one visit from a Health Visitor. The hospital consultant appointments for our little girl have been held over the phone which has made me quite anxious after everything she went through I would feel much better if the consultants were seeing her in person.
“Before lockdown, I was offered counselling in January to help deal with the effects of my daughter’s premature birth, but I still haven’t heard anything or had any help. I feel that, given my situation, I should have been more of a priority. There was no counselling or mental health support offered for parents when we were in the NICU and I think there should be.
“Lockdown has meant that bringing her home has been quite an isolating experience. We are so happy to have her with us but it has been very hard not to be able to have family or friends come to the house and help us out and not to be able to get out and about with her as much as we’d like to.”
Access to mental health services does seem to differ for different parents, even within the same health board. Rebecca, also from Cardiff, gave birth to her second child mid-April.
“I was diagnosed with post-natal depression after I had my first child, so I think the signs were recognised soon after the birth of my second child in April. My midwife was aware of my history and kept in touch after the birth. I also think the fact I knew what support was available, and who to contact was crucial. When I needed the support, the crisis team were there for me. The perinatal team who took over have also offered flexibility if I need a home visit, although they’ve adapted to telephone support which has really helped me. Then the health visitor has been to the house weekly after linking in with the perinatal team – they’re able to address the things I feel most anxious about, and that’s really provided me with real comfort when I’ve needed it most. I’m been so impressed with the support I’ve had, and also with the way the perinatal team has adapted to the pandemic.
“In normal circumstances, now is the time I’d have started to think about some of the other classes I would attend with my baby, and of course that’s when it’s hit me that the support network that a new mum would usually have is missing. At a time like this, your house is both your sanctuary and like being in a pressure cooker!
“I’m lucky that I’ve got contacts from my firstborn, but I’m aware that I’d normally be out and about visiting friends and attending different sessions. You draw on your peers so much – a huge part of parenthood is checking in with others who are going through it at the same time. I worry that new parents are going to miss vital signs of important things like post-natal depression, and won’t know who to turn to when they need extra help.”
Dr Sarah Witcombe-Hayes, Senior Policy Researcher at NSPCC Cymru says:
“Before the pandemic, up to 1 in 5 mums and 1 in 10 dads experienced mental health problems during pregnancy and after birth. Since the COVID-19 crisis, subsequent lockdown requirements and social distancing measures, families have been left without their usual support networks and may struggle to access the family support services they need. This has caused unprecedented pressures and heightened anxieties for new parents.
“Midwives and health visitors play an essential role in safeguarding and promoting the welfare of families and are uniquely placed to identify perinatal mental health problems early to ensure that families get the right support. At this time, it’s crucial for mums and dad/partners to be able to access the parenting support they need. There must also be the capacity to address mental health needs when they are identified.
“This is why, through our Fight for a Fair Start campaign, we’re wanting to ensure mums and dads/partners in Wales understand who they can turn to for perinatal mental health support, know that services are still open and available to support them, and are given the confidence to seek support when they need it.”