The Deep Loneliness of Having a Baby in a Pandemic

Having a baby, caring for a newborn, and healing from childbirth are exhausting, stressful, and often overwhelming experiences under normal circumstances. But for those who are having babies amidst the coronavirus pandemic, safety precautions, health fears, and social distancing create the perfect storm of isolation and anxiety that make the postpartum period that much more difficult.

In addition to several health care professionals, I spoke with four newly postpartum women in reporting this piece. They were kind enough to share their perspectives on how taking home a new baby during a pandemic has been uniquely challenging for them and their families, from hospital visitor policies to social distancing-induced isolation. Each one described feelings of fear, anxiety, and loneliness—in some cases while holding back tears. Here are their stories.

The new normal in hospitals

At about 8 p.m. on March 11th, after giving birth earlier that morning, Cheryl Despathy of Atlanta was moved to a recovery room. She had a fitful night of sleep, between her newborn needing to feed and the hospital check-ins from nurses and staff. At 2 p.m. the next day, a nurse entered. “I remember thinking, ‘that’s strange, they were just here at noon,’” she says. The nurse had news for her: because of the coronavirus, the hospital was about to go on lockdown. That meant no one other than her husband was allowed to visit her or her new daughter—a blow to Despathy, whose mother had just landed in Atlanta from Minnesota to meet her grandchild.

Just three hours later, the nurse returned, offering to discharge Despathy and her newborn early, not even 36 hours after her baby was born. She accepted. “You could just kind of tell the staff seemed to feel stressed out, which made us feel more like we should go home,” she says. “When we left, they had a security person and a nurse at the door, blocking it off and turning away visitors unless you had a wristband [indicating you were a parent of a newborn]. We became really grateful to leave when we did,” she says.

In the weeks since Despathy’s birth experience, hospitals across the country have adopted similarly cautious policies in an effort to protect laboring folks, healthcare providers, visitors, and new babies. The CDC offers recommendations to inpatient obstetrics healthcare settings, which include isolating all pregnant people who have confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19, limiting visitors, limiting points of entry into and out of the hospital, and isolating newborns born to moms with confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19.

As an example of how these new recommendations play out in practice, Mary Jane Minkin, M.D., a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Yale University, describes the policies that Yale has implemented: “We have strict isolation rooms for women who have been exposed or are ill. We have had to cut down our support person policy to one person, and you cannot rotate (i.e., have your partner for a while, then your mom—it needs to be one designated person to minimize traffic on the labor floor),” she says. Beyond that, most of the women I spoke with mentioned that their partners were screened before entry, meaning that hospital staff asked them about their symptoms and travel history, and took their temperatures before allowing them in.

While the exact implementation of these new guidelines can differ from hospital to hospital, the overall effect is that the atmosphere of labor and delivery floors has changed.

Jenny Lentz, of Mount Kisco, New York, delivered her second child on March 16. “It felt eerily quiet,” she says. Gone were the floor-wide breastfeeding and discharge classes she remembered attending after having her older son. “I didn’t see one other patient when I was there. We could hear the babies, but that was it,” says Lentz. Her entire experience was marked by how lonely it felt. “My husband had to go home to take care of our son, so it was just me and the baby. To not have somebody there—even just to hang out with!—was very, very strange,” she says. The isolation triggered an intense protective instinct over her newborn. “I didn’t want him to go anywhere. The doctors and nurses would come in and be like, ‘can we take him to the nursery for this?’ And I’d say, I’d rather the doctor come in here. I’d rather you guys do the bloodwork in here.”

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