Researchers at the University of Calgary are studying expectant mothers from across Canada and examining the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on their mental and physical health — as well as any potential impacts on their babies.
Calgary mom Amanda Jacques is nearly 36 weeks along with her second child and decided to join the study because she thinks it’s important to collect real data during unprecedented times.
“My biggest frustration is there really is no one source of truth out there. Different countries have different statements about the risks to pregnant women and the transmission to babies,” she said.
“So I think any time there is actual research to look into, this is so, so important.”
‘As healthy as can be’
As a health-care worker herself, Jacques said she knows how anxiety and stress can impact a mother and a baby.
“This research is going to show how to support moms and how to support babies better so that everyone’s as healthy as can be before, during and after birth.”
Catherine Lebel, associate professor in radiology at the University of Calgary, is leading the study.
Lebel said she’s most interested and concerned about the elevated stress that pregnant woman might be experiencing right now.
“And ultimately to look at how that’s related to child outcomes as well,” she said.
There are more than 1,200 women across the country participating in the study, with the capacity for up to 5,000.
The entire study is being conducted online through a variety of surveys. Some of the surveys are standardized questionnaires that have been used for years to assess anxiety depression symptoms, while others will be specific to the current pandemic.
“Questions around life changes, have people lost their jobs, has their income changed, has their child-care situation changed, do they have other children?” she said. “As well as COVID-19 specific anxiety questions, like how much are you worried that this is going to affect your baby?”
‘But, that could change’
Jacques said there are many things that she’s experiencing now, or thinking about now, that she didn’t have to during her first pregnancy.
“The biggest worry, of course, is just getting sick,” she said. “And that can happen at any point and could have some sort of impact beyond [for] the baby, because they don’t really know yet.”
Jacques said that while she fully understands the need for heightened precautions, things have been different for medical appointments during this pregnancy.
“I had an ultrasound a few weeks ago that my husband couldn’t come to and he is pretty upset about that,” she said.
Now Jacques said she’s uncertain about what it might look like at the hospital when she eventually goes to give birth.
“I’ve been told that they’re still allowing one person in to labour and delivery with you and for that I’ve chosen it to be my husband, but certainly there’s no children allowed in the hospital. So even after the birth, our child can’t come see the baby while I’m recovering,” she said.
But Jacques said even those rules could change at any moment.
“Yesterday I was reading about how they’ve become more and more strict but that they’re still allowing people in for labour and delivery or if it’s someone’s end of life,” she said.
“So far, it looks like I won’t be going alone, but it could change, and certainly if [my husband] becomes sick or symptomatic [he can’t come].”
Collecting pregnancy and birth outcomes
Lebel said Jacques’s worries are similar to those throughout Canada.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty, so people don’t know what their birth is going to look like,” she said.
“They don’t know if they can bring a support person to their labour and delivery.… Some people are are worried about going to hospital, and then there’s a lot of uncertainty about postpartum as well.”
Lebel said respondents are also unclear about what life will look like for them after giving birth.
“I think most of us who’ve had kids are used to lots of visitors after the baby is born, both for practical support and for social support, and obviously people now are not going to be experiencing that in the same way,” she said.
Researchers are collecting the data and looking at profiles of mental health and pregnancy.
Right now, we’re seeing very elevated levels of anxiety and depression symptoms.– Catherine Lebel, researcher
“Right now, we’re seeing very elevated levels of anxiety and depression symptoms, for example, and we’re also looking at potential factors that might help mitigate that,” she said.
“So, for example, social support in pregnancy, if that helps reduce these symptoms like physical activity and sleep duration — things that might help people cope with these sorts of stresses and then might mitigate some of the effects on the babies.”
Lebel said participants will fill out the surveys every month leading up to childbirth, and then periodically during the first year.
“We’re going to be looking at pregnancy outcomes and birth outcomes. So, for example, when the baby was born, how was the baby, were there any complications with that?” she said.
“Then the goal also is to follow those kids and see if there’s other things we can look at about child development that might be related to this prenatal stress.”
There aren’t any other studies that look at this specific issue, said Lebel.
“There’s been research with natural disasters, like there’s been some coming out of the ice storm that was in [Ontario and Quebec] about 20 years ago, and there’s been some with flooding disasters in various parts of the world,” she said.
“But there really hasn’t been an event of this scale that’s happened, and so we don’t have a lot of research on it.”