New Mothers, New Challenges: Virtual Support Helps New and Expecting Moms Get Through the Pandemic Safely

COVID-19 pregnancyThe experience of being pregnant and having a baby is different during the era of COVID-19. In-person baby showers aren’t happening. Pregnant women aren’t seeing friends and coworkers on a daily basis, so they can’t have the kind of “Is this normal?” discussions that tend to come up between expecting and experienced mothers.

After the baby is born, many women have to go without help from other family members because of travel restrictions or fears of bringing COVID-19 into a home with a newborn.

“Many families are trying to navigate the emotional, physical and social challenges often experienced after the birth of a baby without the traditional support of friends and family,” says Suzanne Spernal, Vice President for Women’s Services at RWJBarnabas Health (RWJBH). “We’ve been hearing that pregnant women feel anxious because they’re isolated and not able to experience pregnancy and new motherhood as they’d imagined they would.”

For many women, help has come in the form of virtual support groups, facilitated by experts at RWJBH hospitals. Specific topics vary from hospital to hospital, but two groups are open to all: virtual support for women who are experiencing perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs) and virtual support for breastfeeding.

“One of the most important things women learn in these groups is that the things they’re feeling are normal and they can talk about them,” Spernal says. “We’ve created comfortable, safe virtual spaces for expecting and new mothers.”

Managing Anxiety

Women may come to a PMAD group feeling that they’re alone, but in fact, PMAD—which used to be called postpartum depression—affects 1 in 5 pregnant and new moms. Though a very real illness, it is temporary and treatable, and peer support has been shown to be a powerful help.

In the group, new and expecting mothers may express their sadness or anger, or feelings of being overwhelmed, without feeling judged.

“The conversations these women are having are so meaningful,” Spernal says. “Some of them feel so isolated and sad at the beginning of a session, and by the end they’re actually smiling and have been given a handful of resources they can immediately tap into as soon as the session is over.”

Conversations can continue in a private Facebook community, and telehealth visits with a behavioral health specialist can be arranged. “We’ve been able to open the doors for more women to get support for mood and anxiety disorders because the virtual groups have eliminated geographic barriers,” Spernal says.

Breastfeeding Basics

Breastfeeding is good for both mother and baby, but it comes with many challenges— from latching-on to milk supply, tongue-tie, pain, pumping, diet, weaning, and more. In virtual breastfeeding support groups, women connect with other new mothers as well as International Board-Certified Lactation Consultants to get the answers they need.

Lactation consultants allow moms to take the lead by raising issues that are of concern to them and provide their professional advice and insight as needed.

“When I got home from the hospital, I missed the support of the great lactation consultants and nurses there,” says Lauren Tran, 34, of South Orange, who had a baby boy in mid-June. “I wondered if it would feel silly to do a breastfeeding group virtually instead of in person. But that feeling went away quickly, and we are building camaraderie and getting to know each other just as we would if we were in person.”

“Knowing I’m not alone in challenges I’m dealing with is so helpful,” says Shlomit Sanders, 33, of Elizabeth, who gave birth in April. “There are breastfeeding behaviors in babies that first-time moms have no idea about—for example, a feeding position that works great one time and not at all the next. It’s so comforting to normalize these behaviors.”

“At RWJBarnabas Health, we’ve made ourselves available to all of the pregnant and parenting women in our communities, and we welcome their questions,” Spernal says. “We want them to have a great experience, even as they take all the measures needed to stay safe and healthy during the pandemic.”

More about protecting moms and babies during COVID-19.

To learn more about virtual breastfeeding support, visit www.rwjbh.org/breastfeedingsupport. To learn about the PMAD group, visit www.rwjbh.org/PMADsupport. To learn more about maternity care at RWJBarnabas Health, visit www.rwjbh.org/maternity.