By Emily Reynolds
Having a new baby is never easy: managing the stresses of childbirth, sleepless nights, and juggling childcare and domestic chores is difficult, especially for first parents. Some also suffer from postnatal depression, which affects an estimated 23% of women in Europe after having a child (men also suffer from postnatal depression, although the numbers are not so clear-cut).
Add the effects of lockdown to new parenting and that number could rise sharply, a new study published in Limits in Psychology suggests. UCL’s Sarah Myers and Emily H. Emmott worked with women with babies six months or younger in the UK during the initial COVID-19 lockdown and found that nearly half hit postnatal depression threshold – double that of average European rates.
Participants were 162 women living in London between the ages of 19 and 47; half were first-time women, the other half had up to three other children. The women first completed a survey that measured symptoms of postnatal depression, then shared their own personal social networks, listed up to 25 people, and explained who they were and what their relationships were.
After sharing this information, the participants also reported who they had seen personally on this network and with whom they had chatted by phone, video call, SMS or WhatsApp in the past few weeks. The contacts included family, old friends, colleagues and so-called “Mummy Friends” – friends from outside the family who also had children of the same age.
The results showed high levels of depressive symptoms in the new mothers, with 47.5% reporting symptoms that reached the threshold for diagnosing postnatal depression (34.6% of the group reported particularly high symptoms).
Regarding social networks, respondents (like many non-parents) saw few people in the weeks leading up to the survey. On average, women had seen one family member, three other general friends, and no “mom friends” even though they spoke to a wide variety of social contacts via social media, phone calls, or text messages. However, many women left without support from family members – 47.5% had seen no relatives at all.
Social contact was also associated with depressive symptoms: the more social contact 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 examined the experience of new parenting during lockdown through open-ended questions about how the pandemic affected mothers’ self-esteem and their relationships with their babies. Some mothers were positive about the lockdown, saying it gave them more time with their baby and more time with their partners at home and helping with childcare. “It was a great help to have my partner at home every day, because most days I can have at least an hour to myself, which I use for exercising or sleeping,” wrote one woman. “Also, I think it has an amazingly positive effect on my partner’s ability to bond with the baby and co-parent.”
However, in accordance with the high depressive symptoms, other mothers struggled. Some felt a “constant burden” on parenting (“I think the lockdown made me feel like I wasn’t myself, just a mother”) while others pointed to the relative inadequacy of online support. One woman pointed to the many video calls and chats she had during that time – but found that the lockdown’s physical isolation resulted in a lack of practical advice and support.
After all, others saw the lockdown as a time of “lost opportunities”. “You are only a first-time mom once and I was really looking forward to making new friends,” wrote one woman. “I think I am very sad that I missed this.” Others pointed to developmental concerns – concerns about children recognizing family members they only met through FaceTime, lack of physical and mental milestones, and lack of play with other children.
The team suggests two key findings: first, that it “takes a village” to raise a child, with social networks being essential to support parents and babies after birth; and second, that the impact of COVID-19 on young parents should be considered in health interventions, with an emphasis on personal rather than digital support from health and social services.
Overall, the study highlights the unique (and incredibly stressful) circumstances new parents were pushed into during the COVID-19 pandemic – and now that the lockdown has subsided, the results suggest it may be an auspicious time to contact new parents in your own social networks.
– Communicating via social networks of mothers during England’s first national lockdown and its association with postnatal depressive symptoms
Emily Reynolds is an associate at BPS Biomedarticles