Social distancing poses risk to wellbeing of new mothers

Anastasia Tsirtsakis

8/05/2020 11:40:38 AM

Dr Wendy Burton discusses the important role GPs play in postnatal support, especially during the pandemic.

New mum wearing face mask
‘We have to be particularly paying attention to issues of mental wellbeing,’ GP Dr Wendy Burton said of new mothers amid the pandemic.

‘I’m glad this isn’t my first.’
Dr Wendy Burton, GP and Chair of the RACGP Specific Interests Antenatal/Postnatal Care network, has heard repeat mums make that comment many times during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Welcoming a new baby is usually a time of celebration, one shared with family and friends. But it can also be a time of uncertainty, loneliness and isolation – all feelings that are heightened due to coronavirus and social distancing measures.
Perinatal anxiety and depression affects one in five mothers and one in 10 fathers.
The Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia (PANDA) national helpline has reported a dramatic increase in calls during the pandemic, as has the Gidget Foundation, which has reported a 50% increase in the number of people reaching out for support.
‘[New mothers are] missing that extension of family and peer support,’ Dr Burton told newsGP. ‘Usually there would be family and friends who come to visit, the wise women would come over, there would be celebrations and christenings – now it’s all very different.
‘I did an immunisation for a six-weeker on Monday and they were running a little bit late because it was the first time they’d used the baby capsule since they came home from hospital and it had to be adjusted.
‘I was the only human face [the baby] had seen in the flesh apart from mum and dad.’
While technology allows for some connection through phone and video calls, Dr Burton acknowledges that it is not the same as face-to-face interaction, of wisdom being imparted, and having that extra pair of hands to hold, burp and change the baby.
‘As much as we health professionals like to think that new parents seek all their information and advice from us, nothing could be further from the truth,’ she said.
‘They get most of it from family and friends.’
Mothers have also raised concerns over struggling to access health services, such as face-to-face appointments with a lactation consultant, while visits from maternal health nurses have either been brief or stopped entirely.
‘I had a woman who was telling me that the early childhood nurses pop by with the scale, clean them, weigh the baby, clean them and hand them back. That was the extent of the assessment,’ Dr Burton said.
‘The usual drop-in services aren’t working locally where I am. So it’s a significant change.’
But while some are feeling very isolated and bereft of the usual celebration, Dr Burton assures social distancing has had surprising perks for some new mothers.
‘They weren’t planning to go out much, anyway. They’ve had their partner at home, their partner’s been able to spend more time with them and the baby than usual, and they’ve really quite enjoyed the quiet pace and felt that there was no extra pressure on them to go and do things they weren’t ready to do,’ she explains.
Recognising that everyone’s lived experience is unique to the individual, Dr Burton says it is important for GPs, as trusted support people, continue to check in and prioritise postnatal care just as much as antenatal.
‘We have to be particularly paying attention to issues of mental wellbeing,’ she said.
‘I’m still checking: “Tell me about your support. Is this working for you?”
‘I’m about to ring a new mum [for] who it’s her second time around, but she’s a bit wobbly. We saw baby for the checkup, but actually she needs some support. So I’m about to touch base and check in on her for her emotional wellbeing.
‘We also really need to be on our game when it comes to potentials for domestic violence.’
While council-run new parents’ groups have been suspended across the country, Dr Burton says GPs should encourage patients to join online communities to access information and stay connected for extra support.
‘I think that whole social isolation, social distancing, was so the wrong term. Safe spaces or physical distance, but not social; we need to be socially connected,’ Dr Burton said.
‘There are some no-cost, low-cost options out there to help connect women to healthcare professionals.
‘COPE [Centre of Perinatal Excellence] has got a perinatal mental health e-directory and I’d encourage GPs who have an interest or expertise in perinatal mental health to sign up to that because that’ll be part of how they’ll be directing women who need support.’
Dr Burton emphasised the importance of doctor–patient relationships.
‘Even if these are new parents that are new to you, I’d encourage GPs to work hard on forging those relationships so that we can do that comprehensive care that we’re actually so good at,’ she said.
‘We can do the baby checks, the immunisations, and [also] follow up on the mental health issues with our parents – and don’t forget the dads, because they matter, too. It’s a whole new world for all of us.’
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Dr Robert John William Mathews   12/05/2020 10:05:17 AM

I have to agree that this has been a tough time for new parents. Our baby was born just prior to the lockdown and my husband has felt incredibly isolated and anxious being stuck at home alone with a newborn. With no option to meet other new parents or socialise with friends it has meant there is no outlet to do anything but focus on the baby 24/7 which really isn't helpful for one's mental health.

Dr Gwendoline Ruth Burton   12/05/2020 6:43:23 PM

Robert, I'm sorry but not surprised to hear that. Are you making progress?