Research News: Study examines pandemic’s impact on mothers and new babies

Close-up photo of mother's hands on her pregnant belly

The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically altered many people’s lifestyles. Parents may be working from home, providing additional childcare or experiencing social isolation. Some are dealing with decreased work hours and loss of employment. With all these factors at hand, a team of researchers from Western University and Lawson Health Research Institute are investigating the possible health impacts on mothers and their babies who were born or will be born during the pandemic.

“This has been a stressful and pivotal time for everyone in the world, but we know the post-partum experience can greatly affect both the birthing person and their baby, in the short and long term,” said Dr. Genevieve Eastabrook, Assistant Professor at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry and Associate Scientist at Lawson. “We know perceived stress in the perinatal period may have a contribution to health later in life for the birthing person and their children in terms of overall cardiovascular and metabolic health, bonding experiences, and risk of mood disorders.” Eastabrook is also an obstetrician-gynecologist at London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC).

As part of the new study, the London research team is using a One Health approach called which offers a holistic perspective to explore how various risk factors and social determinants of health interact to affect health. This is being studied through the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Western.

“It’s important for us to think of the environment as all of our surroundings, including the things around us like health care, grocery stores, education and employment,” said Mei Yuan, a master’s student at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry. “The purpose of this study is to look at the pandemic response rather than the pandemic itself. We know that even if women haven’t been infected with COVID-19, it doesn’t mean they haven’t been impacted.”

Study participants are asked to complete a 30-minute questionnaire 6 to 12 weeks after their delivery. The questionnaire focuses on perceived stress, postpartum depressive symptoms, perceived social support, the impact of COVID-19, health-care access and breastfeeding. Data from the questionnaire will be linked with participants’ medical records to look for associations between the various factors and pregnancy outcomes.

“Even though the study is mainly focused on maternal health, studies have shown that once mental health is affected it really does impact the infant’s health, especially in the area of attachment between baby and caregivers,” explained Yuan.

Data from the study will be compared to the Maternity Experiences Survey, a national survey of Canadian women compiled in 2007 which looked at experience, perception, knowledge and practice during pregnancy, birth and the early months of parenthood.

“The unique aspect here is that we have a comparative group using a historic cohort to see whether or not there are differences in markers that increase risk of depression, perceived stress and lack of social support,” added Eastabrook. “We will also look at some unique things from the pandemic, such as how the use of virtual care for antenatal, postpartum and baby care impacted people’s experiences.”

The research team hopes to recruit 300 mothers for this study who have given birth at LHSC, specifically during the pandemic. Interested participants can email the Pregnancy Research Group. Once all the data is collected the goal will be to use the findings to improve post-partum care for mothers and their babies within this population group.