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Study reveals parents’ premature birth experiences during pandemic


Southampton research has shown that absence of birth partner, impact of face masks on bonding, and infection risk were key concerns for parents of babies born before term during lockdown.


Strict COVID-19 restrictions

Strict measures to protect mothers and newborns were introduced as part of the UK lockdown over March to June 2020.


All non-essential maternity care during pregnancy was paused, with in-person appointments switching to telephone or video consultations. Partners were no longer allowed to be present during birth. And for babies born before term or unwell, visits to neonatal care were limited to one parent at a time, wearing facemasks and PPE.


Exploring parents’ experiences

A team of Southampton researchers, led by Professor Anne-Sophie Darlington and Dr Luise Marino, set out to explore these challenges. Using an online survey, they gathered insights into parents’ experiences, information and support needs, and decision-making.


Close working with the childbirth charity Bliss and Princess Anne Hospital’s neonatal teams was key to reaching parents of pre-term babies. 107 parents (103 mothers and four partners) completed the survey, which opened after the first lockdown. Around half of these families had their babies very early, before 33 weeks of pregnancy.


Part of the larger SHARE study, looking at pandemic impacts on children and young adults with serious health conditions and their parents, the survey was designed to identify key themes.


Assessing the impact

The results, published in Acta Paediatrica, show many parents felt the restrictions had a significant psychological and emotional impact. A third felt restrictions affected their mental health.


The researchers found 75% worried about the infection risk to their baby. However, this was far from their only concern.


Over half of partners missed the birth, with only the health professionals helping deliver the baby with mothers at birth. 23% said they missed such close family support, many citing the partner’s missed experience.


Mothers also worried that wearing a mask during the birth would mean their baby might not be able to recognise them, affecting their ability to bond with their baby.


Prof Darlington, Professor of Child and Family Psychological Health, said: “These results show the impact lockdown restrictions have had on parents of premature babies across the UK.”


“It is important that these experiences are considered in any future restrictions. These insights should inform pre-term care for families under this or any other future pandemic.”


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