The arrival of your baby is the final piece of “the full catastrophe,” as Zorba the Greek put it. You get through it by patching together a network of friends, family, and professionals to make sure the baby is latched, you are getting some sleep, and, of course, everyone is able to take in this tiny marvel. In the time of a pandemic, however, social distancing means that parents will be physically on their own — so it’s time for a new plan.
Going into birth for the first time, I recall thinking that my ability to endure the Foley catheter — a balloon they inflate inside your cervix — was the real test of character. As it turns out, learning to be a parent an ocean away from my family was the bigger challenge. Likewise, the issues you may encounter right now as a new parent aren’t all covered in the baby books, so we’ve called on leading experts to fill in the gaps. We spoke to a reproductive psychiatrist, author, pediatrician, and doula — all of whom wrote the actual book on their area of expertise — as well as a midwife, military moms, and women who delivered alone. All were positive that approximately 900,000 families who welcome a baby in the next three months will rise to the challenges self-isolation poses.
You deserve to be surrounded by love and care and pom-poms at this time, and you will be — it just won’t look the way you imagined. You are the heroic parents of a generation shaped by pandemic; here’s how to get through the extraordinary first few months.
Your Birth Plan's Been Scrapped. Now What?
Discuss the new plan. “It's an open conversation that you should be having either with your OB, your midwife, or directly with your labor and delivery unit at the hospital,” says Dr. Chitra Akileswaran, vice chair of obstetrics and gynecology at Alameda Health System in Oakland, California, and co-founder of Cleo, a resource for working parents. “The more information you have, the more you'll be able to prepare and also make your own contingency plans around, well, if you get one support person who would that be? If you get two who would that be? What would happen in the postpartum setting? What would happen if your baby needed to be hospitalized? What if you end up with the infection yourself? I think sort of planning for different scenarios is important, as scary as that is."
Know that birth, like the pandemic, is out of your control. “These are extraordinary times, says reproductive psychiatrist Alexandra Sacks, M.D., who often works with clients dealing with birth disappointment. The uncertainty is “an add-on to the baseline of how impossible it is to control birth.”
Practice asking for help.
Acknowledge your sacrifice. Focusing on the altruistic aspect of social distancing may help you process the experience. “Imagine a future when you may be able to explain to your child that their parents made a great sacrifice in order to participate in the public good,” says Sacks, author of What No One Tells You: A Guide to Your Emotions from Pregnancy to Motherhood and host of the “Motherhood Sessions” podcast.
Talk about what’s happening. “There's going to have to be a lot of storytelling,” says Lindsey Meehleis, a certified professional midwife with Orange County Midwifery. For parents with an older child, she suggests being open with them about your fears around labor. “You probably sensed that Mommy and Daddy are scared,” you might say, acknowledging the child’s feelings.
Tell your support crew in advance about your needs. “Practice asking for help,” says Sacks.
What To Do Once You Return Home To Isolation
Let yourself be angry. “It's important for everyone who's in this situation to allow themselves to feel angry and frustrated about being pregnant and giving birth during this very scary, complicated time,” says Sacks. “I also think there's a tremendous opportunity for growth in skills that will strengthen your parenting.”
Give yourself compassion. “You're not in a normal environment, this confinement and the stress is not of your own design,” says Erica Chidi Cohen, doula, author, and co-founder and CEO of LOOM, a Los Angeles wellness and parenting center.
If you are struggling with supply issues, understand that some of it could be stress-oriented and it might be hard to really truly mitigate that.
Focus on your recovery. Sleep, exercise, hydration, and good nutrition are vital for getting through the postpartum period, advises Kate Rope, author of Strong as a Mother: How to Stay Healthy, Happy, and (Most Importantly) Sane from Pregnancy to Parenthood, in her guide to emotional wellness on Romper.
Don’t force breastfeeding. Think about alternative feeding plans, like what formula supplementation might look like, suggests Cohen. “If you are struggling with supply issues, understand that some of it could be stress-oriented and it might be hard to really truly mitigate that.” After all, “we are in this pandemic,” she says. “We're under extraordinary, unmitigated stress right now,” she says, and “stress hormones actually can tank your milk.”
Set aside worry time. Elizabeth O’Brien, a licensed professional counselor and the immediate past president of the Georgia chapter of Postpartum Support International, suggested that you limit worry by setting a timer for 10 minutes and writing down all the things you are concerned about in a stream of consciousness.
Tips From A Baby Sleep Guru
Remember your baby has no idea what a pandemic is. The world might be in upheaval, but “from the baby's point of view, they're happy no matter what,” says Dr. Harvey Karp, pediatrician and inventor of the SNOO Smart Sleeper bassinet, which is currently being evaluated by the FDA as a potentially life-saving device and used in hospitals to help relieve nursing staff.
Adjust your expectations. “You can hold the baby 14 hours a day and he’ll still feel ripped off,” says Karp.
Work on the basics. Learning how to feed and calm the baby, and putting in place safe sleep practices “make all the difference between feeling crushed and desolate in the situation or feeling, ‘You know, I'm pretty good at this,’” says Karp, author of Happiest Baby on the Block and man behind the the “5 S’s.”
Don't criticize yourself but rather reach out to get more information or another opinion.
Take a nap break. Sleep deprivation lowers your immunity as a parent, as Karp reminds me, and is linked to perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs). Tag team, give yourself permission to put the baby down in its crib when you need a break, and consider an extra helper like the SNOO bassinet.
Get a second opinion. You deserve support from your doctor, whether or not you are doing in-person or televisits. “If you're getting advice and it's not working for you,” says Karp, “don't criticize yourself but rather reach out to get more information or another opinion.”
How To Connect With Others & Get The Support You Need Remotely
Tell friends and family they can buy you dinner. “Your friends may not be able to come over, but they may be able to deliver a meal or a care package,” says Sacks. Websites like Meal Train have an option that lets distant friends and relatives set up a schedule and contribute to Seamless gift cards.
Take your meetups online. “We're going to really have to turn to tools like online support groups,” says Meehleis, who expects to see informal breastfeeding support groups, mommy-and-me circles, and telehealth sessions. Virtual baby showers were a thing before COVID-19 — name your date.
Embrace videochat. My parents met my son over FaceTime, and their proud faces tided me over until I could travel to my home country with my new bundle.
Get free remote therapy. Sacks recommends Postpartum Support International, a popular, free telehealth resource for emotional support. Speak to your health provider if anxiety or mood are interfering with your day.
Giving Birth In Isolation? These 7 Moms Did That
Look after yourself. Shortly after birth, Hillary Savoie's baby was transferred to the NICU in a separate hospital. Savoie couldn’t hold or stay with her baby, so she spent a lot of time talking to her through the incubator. “There are a lot of ways that we can convey love, and I just kept thinking that, for her, my voice would be the most familiar,” Savoie says. “I wish I'd understood that one of the best things I could have been doing for her at that time was to help myself be strong — mentally, emotionally, and physically.”
Know everyone is with you in spirit. Francie Webb, a doula, had a precipitous delivery before her support team could arrive, and was told by a friend after her birth, "We were there with you the whole time, but you were meant to cross the finish line on your own." Hearing that was “so powerful,” she says.
Embrace your child’s origin story. Jonna Rubin’s husband had a panic attack after birth and had to return home to be with their firstborn, leaving her in the hospital with her newborn. Today, her son enjoys the story of their beginning. "It was just me and you, Mommy," he’ll tell her. “That's why we are such good friends."
Take a break from the news. “I watched the news all the time when I was alone in bed waiting for my son to be born and it was probably the worst choice I could have made just because it was just so depressing,” says Alison Buckholtz, a military mother whose husband was away for her first child’s birth. “I think part of self-care is just keeping it light.”
I saved all the emails they sent and put them in her scrapbook so she would know how they thought about her.
Let family see the baby on your terms. “I’d suggest a lot of FaceTime and pictures sent via text to family who can’t be there in those first few weeks,” said Mary Beth Gahan, a journalist and Navy wife whose second child, now 1, was born while her family was stationed in Japan. “It’s the best of both worlds: They get to bond with the baby and see them in real-time but you don’t have to worry about someone overstaying their welcome.”
Blog or journal your quarantine experience. “I kept a daily journal,” said Julie Weckerlein, who was stationed in Italy on active duty in the Air Force when her first child was born in 2003. “Eventually, I moved the journal online and became a part of our family blog. Keeping a daily journal allowed me to focus on the events of the day, to document my daughter's growth, and my own personal successes. Sometimes, a personal success was just taking a shower.”
Scrapbook all the well-wishes. “I wanted desperately to share my baby with my parents and sisters, to allow them to experience how fantastic she was, even from afar,” says Weckerlein. “We painted her feet and made footprint cards to send to them. I saved all the emails they sent and put them in her scrapbook so she would know how they thought about her.”
Confide in someone you trust. Melissa Carlson is a mom of three boys, ages 10, 6, and 4, each of whom were born while her husband was on active duty in the Marine Corps. She says you need someone to whom you can “say exactly how you're feeling and what you're thinking and what's really going on without feeling guilty about burdening them or stressing them out in any way.”
Accept help and IOUs. “Have some ideas in mind of what they may be able to do that will really help you,” says Carlson. “Whether that be the grocery delivery, gift certificate or gift card to be able to go to get carry out from places nearby. Or, if it's like an IOU of ‘Hey, once this craziness goes away, I would really love to be able to go get my hair cut.’”
How To Think About Your Postpartum Confinement
Let go of FOMO. “I have been telling postpartum women for a long time with those first 40 days that being confined at home does have its benefits,” says Cohen. You’re not missing out. “Everybody's in confinement and everybody is having to in a way slow down.”
Use this time to rest and bond. The Mexican postpartum tradition of cuarentena is a time in which housework, sex, and other tasks are banned, and the new mother focuses on healing and bonding with her infant. “It wasn’t until I started getting into doula work that I realized my postpartum experience was very different from the American standard,” Sariah Price, a doula and cuarentena practitioner in Utah told Romper, “and how hard it was on so many of my friends and the women I’m working with.”
If you are the partner, take the lead. “The fact that [the partner is] not healing physically from delivery means that they can step up holding the psyche of the home in a different way,” says Cohen. “That's not something I would have said pre-COVID. But you as a partner are more capable of doing that right now.”
Remember: You can do this! “These are extraordinary circumstances,” says Sacks. But “the human capacity for resilience is tremendous.”
Additional reporting by Kate Rope, Jamie Kenney, and Courtney Mabeus.
Postpartum Support International: call 1-800-944-4773 or text 503-894-9453 (English); 971-420-0294 (Español)
Healthy Children (the American Academy of Pediatrics’ parenting website)
What Parents Need to Know About Coronavirus (COVID-19) (Happiest Baby)