Being Pregnant and COVID-19: How to Get Through

Months into the COVID-19 pandemic, public health officials are starting to learn more about how the new coronavirus affects specific communities and populations’ health. However, for pregnant women and their unborn children, limited data exist on the relationship between COVID-19 and pregnancy—and the available information has ultimately been inconsistent and inconclusive.

 According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, everyone—including pregnant people—should avoid exposure to COVID-19. It’s normal to experience increased stress and anxiety due to the pandemic, and it’s important to acknowledge that these are uncertain times.  

 In addition to the stress you might feel about your pregnancy and its impact on your life, you might feel uncertainty and fear about how the new coronavirus could affect your baby’s health and whether you’ll have a healthy pregnancy. For pregnant people, mental health services and professional support services are available to help manage pregnancy stressors during COVID-19.

pregnancy and covid stress

Will COVID-19 Affect Your Unborn Baby’s Health?

One of the first studies on the effects of COVID-19 on pregnancy found that the health of unborn babies and newborns of women infected during the third trimester did not differ compared to those with uninfected pregnancies. In a recent review of 41 pregnant women infected with COVID-19 and another 38 pregnancies complicated by other forms of coronavirus (SARS and MERS), researchers found a small—but significant—increase in preterm birth (before 37 weeks of gestation) in COVID-19 pregnancies. However, the researchers could not distinguish spontaneous preterm labor from babies who were induced to arrive before 37 weeks.

Because pregnancy weakens the immune system, pregnant women are more vulnerable to respiratory infections than the general population. In April, the Columbia University Irving Medical Center reported that one in seven expecting mothers test positive for COVID-19 in New York City.

During the 2009 H1N1 outbreak in the United States, pregnant women developed severe symptoms at higher rates than nonpregnant women. According to multiple studies, pregnant women with COVID-19 are more likely to be hospitalized with severe illness and face a higher risk for intensive care unit (ICU) admission than nonpregnant women. Even high fever—a common symptom of COVID-19—could be a red flag for pregnant women. If developed during early pregnancy, high fever may lead to congenital disabilities.

In late April, researchers found that maternal transmission of SARS-CoV-2 is unlikely. No studies have found that pregnancy increases the risk of COVID-19 transmission or severe symptoms among newborns. Additionally, the World Health Organization recommends that women breastfeed their newborns regardless of their COVID-19 status due to the benefits associated with breast milk.

The evidence of harm to pregnant women and their unborn babies is limited. However, it’s prudent to be mindful and take all precautions to minimize exposure to the coronavirus.

What Are the Consequences of Stress During Pregnancy?

In addition to the stress and anxiety of becoming infected with COVID-19, the stress of living through a pandemic while pregnant can take a significant toll on mental health. High levels of stress during pregnancy are standard, and pregnancy itself can induce stress.

Pregnant women are especially vulnerable to stress if the pregnancy was unplanned, as nearly half of the United States’ pregnancies are. Pregnancy also requires numerous lifestyle changes, including changes to the parents’ relationship, financial situation, employment, and other possible adjustments.

During pregnancy, exposure to stress is associated with a higher risk for preterm birth and low birth weight. Pregnant women who face stress during pregnancy have been shown to give birth to children who are more susceptible to asthma and allergies during childhood. They face higher rates of hospitalization for infectious diseases like respiratory illness.

Research has also revealed the consequences of stress on the child’s mental health. The children of mothers who reported high levels of stress during pregnancy are more likely to develop problematic behaviors during childhood and adolescence. 

Pregnant women who are stressed or anxious are more susceptible to postnatal depression, and stress during pregnancy can lead to long-term consequences for the family.

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Managing Stress During COVID-19

Unlike smoking and alcohol, it can be difficult to eliminate stress from your day-to-day life. However, many strategies can help you manage and reduce stress. Plus, there’s a bonus—reducing stress during pregnancy can help you combat postpartum depression and enjoy a smoother postnatal period.

 Practice mindfulness and meditation

Focusing on your physical health by incorporating light physical activity, meditation, and relaxation into your routine can reduce stress and manage blood pressure. It can also help to reduce the symptoms of mental disorders. 

According to a recent study among urban teens in the United States, group yoga is an effective method of reducing stress and anxiety. If you’re practicing social distancing, try following online yoga instructors, downloading a meditation app, or joining the NAMI Hearts and Minds educational program. 

Stay connected with others

 Because pregnant women are at a higher risk of COVID-19 infection than the general population, avoiding close contact is recommended. However, staying connected with friends, family members, and loved ones can help you combat feelings of loneliness and stress.

To stay connected during your pregnancy, consider hosting a virtual baby shower. A virtual baby shower is generally the same as a traditional baby shower and can happen before or after your baby’s arrival. Choosing a virtual venue, sending digital invitations, planning a gift reveal, and playing baby shower games can help you enjoy your baby shower with loved ones while lowering your risk factors.

Additionally, consider joining a support group. The National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) offers numerous support groups for families, such as NAMI Family-to-Family and NAMI Basics.

Get enough sleep

If you’re a pregnant woman, it’s essential to listen to your body. If you’re feeling tired, take a nap or go to bed early. Sleep is closely connected to your mental health, and it also supports a healthy pregnancy.

If you’re already a parent, finding the time to take a break can be challenging. Consider asking your partner, friend, or family members to look after your new baby for an afternoon, and use your alone time for rest and relaxation.

Talk to your health care provider

If you’re worried about your baby’s health, don’t hesitate to reach out to your health care professional or OB-GYN for reassurance. Whether you’re concerned about premature birth, gestational diabetes, or cervical insufficiency, being honest allows you to receive the support you need and identify potential warning signs.

If you’re nervous about coming into close contact with an infected person while working or facing increased vulnerability due to a medical condition, your healthcare provider may recommend sick leave or a temporary leave of absence. Your healthcare provider has likely seen it all before and would rather listen to pregnant patients’ concerns than let them suffer in silence.

In response to the ongoing pandemic, the United States Department of Health and Human Services has taken steps to relax HIPAA regulations, allowing healthcare providers to provide remote services and prenatal care appointments. During in-person prenatal visits, wear a face mask or cloth face covering and follow social distancing recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Prepare for birth

Knowing what to expect during labor and understanding your options can help you feel more confident during pregnancy. You can talk to your OB-GYN about what to expect and ask any questions you might have about giving birth.

Your OB-GYN can help you establish a childbirth plan, and you’ll be able to change your mind at any time along the way. If you’re nervous about spending time in a hospital, remind yourself that hospitals are the safest place for childbirth. Ultimately, maintaining a flexible outlook can help reduce stress even if the birth doesn’t go as planned.

If your fear of childbirth or family history creates intense and overwhelming anxiety, talk to your healthcare provider. Your healthcare provider can offer mental health support to manage your anxiety, including a referral to a mental health professional or social worker. Working with a trained mental health professional can help you work through mental health challenges related to giving birth and feel more confident.

What If You Still Feel Stressed?

If you still feel overwhelmed, reach out to your healthcare provider or mental health professional. Pregnant people diagnosed with a pre-existing mental illness are especially vulnerable to stress, anxiety, and additional mental health problems due to the added stressors of COVID-19. It’s normal and justified to experience a constellation of negative emotions when faced with the stresses of pregnancy and COVID-19. Working with a mental health professional can help you recognize your strength and feel emotionally supported.

If you’re experiencing a mental health crisis, contact the National Prevention Suicide Lifeline (800-273-8255) or Crisis Text Line (text HOME to 741741) for immediate mental health support.

If you’re struggling with overwhelming stress, consider reaching out to a mental health professional through the Therapy Group of NYC. At the Therapy Group of NYC, we know how challenging it can be to deal with the current situation’s added stressors. Our years of experience as a leading therapy practice have prepared us to offer pregnant people dedicated mental health services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

 Online therapy can help you manage your mental health, especially during periods of acute stress. Although reaching out for professional mental healthcare might feel intimidating, one of the qualified mental health professionals at the Therapy Group of NYC can help you develop healthy coping strategies to protect you and your baby’s health.

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