Taking care of a new baby can be lonely, especially when COVID-19 worries keep you stuck at home. Here's how new parents can get the support they need—and how others can help them, too.
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No matter when it happens, having a baby is challenging—especially if it's your first time. But for those who became new parents during the pandemic, the number of things to worry about seemed to grow exponentially. For several years, it felt like living on a rollercoaster, with the news bringing fresh reason for concern every day. And for many, it heightened the normal stressors that come along with bringing a baby into the world, says Kate Ryder, the CEO and founder of Maven, a telehealth service for women.

There was so much for new parents to think about, and there still is, even now. Will the hospital allow me to have visitors? Should my mom be around the baby if she's been sick? What if we go shopping and people want to hold them? And the worst one: Is that little sniffle a cold or the coronavirus? Each time a new variant of COVID-19 emerges, it brings with it new fears, which are enough to keep many parents home on the couch, exhausted but safe. Unless they get the virus, and need to isolate.

Stay-at-home orders may be a thing of the past, but the vestiges of the last few years are still with us: Hospital safety concerns often find new parents rushed through postpartum care, with fewer (or no) in-person support groups or exercise classes. Family members skittish about COVID-19 may not visit as often, babysitters are suddenly booked up, and numerous daycares have closed after losing too much money. It all causes big gaps in care structures, leaving tired parents without the usual support.

The effects of all this have been profound, and often heavy for families. "Parenting is not something that can be done in isolation," says Samantha Meltzer-Brody, M.D., director of the University of North Carolina Center for Women's Mood Disorders in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Mental Health Concerns for New Parents

It's true that for many of us, the future looks a lot brighter than it did back in 2020, and that's a reason to cheer. But that core of uncertainty that dogged us during the worst days of the pandemic still exists. New parents are happy to go back into stores again, yet they also think about baby's potential exposure to germs, and wonder if it's too soon for everyone to embrace dropping masks. "There are a lot of questions that are unanswered and unanswerable, which sets the stage for an introduction to anxiety,' says Paige Bellenbaum, LMSW, founding director of The Motherhood Center of New York.

The statistics on maternal mental health are particularly sobering. Around 20 to 25 percent of women experience a perinatal mood or anxiety disorder (PMAD), and half of those who grapple with depression go untreated. Experts worry that these numbers have been growing. "Existing risk factors for new and expecting parents to develop a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder—isolation, not having access to a support network, and managing high levels of stress and anxiety—are now the new normal," says Bellenbaum. It may have lessened somewhat recently, but it's still there.

Ryder says there was a 300 percent spike in mental telehealth appointments at Maven when the pandemic started—and demand has since risen. All that isolation, coupled with a constant, pervasive sense of anxiety, really does a number on those with young kids. Back in 2020, the need was palpable, and concerning, according to Catherine Birndorf, M.D., the CEO and medical director of The Motherhood Center. She predicted that the incidence of PMADs was likely to increase.

In 2021, the introduction of three coronavirus vaccines (and their subsequently widespread adoption), comforted new parents. Vaccines for babies six months and over will no doubt be a relief. But pandemic or no, one thing remains abundantly clear: "All parents need support," says Dr. Meltzer-Brody. Fortunately, there are more ways than ever to find it. Here are some great resources.

How to Overcome New Parent Isolation

1. On-Call Therapists

Even though many therapists are now seeing patients in-office again, interest in remote sessions has never been higher, with many psychologists redesigning their practices to emphasize phone calls and videoconferencing. "New parents can access mental health care much more readily [than before] and insurance is covering these costs," says Dr. Meltzer-Brody. She urges parents to use the "teletherapy" appointments available to them, since identifying a PMAD is the first step toward treatment. It's a subject Dr. Meltzer-Brody knows well: Her research study Mom Genes Fight PPD analyzes mothers' genetic codes to explain why some get postpartum depression (PPD) and others don't.

Being able to talk to a practitioner from the recesses of your couch also breaks down some of the barriers around seeking treatment, which often include feelings of stigma, guilt, and shame. "Now is the time to ask for help," says Bellenbaum. "Don't stay at home and suffer."

Thanks to the pandemic, therapists aren't the only health care experts now available for bookings in ways convenient to new parents: Many pelvic floor therapists, sleep and lactation consultants, and other specialists currently run their businesses online. This allows you to get help without having to travel, sit in an office next to someone coughing, or find someone to take care of the baby.

"Through a virtual visit, lactation consultants can provide helpful guidance on milk supply, latching, pain, mastitis, or other issues," notes Ryder. "In-person lactation support is more hands-on, but a lot of the care needed can be delivered virtually."

Physical therapy works well on Zoom, too. It's a seamless way for therapists to watch someone move, guide their exercises, and discuss new symptoms or pain from things like diastasis recti. "A lot of physical therapists say that patient adherence is a real barrier to long-term recovery, and for many women, it's much easier to connect with a therapist during a child's nap, in between meetings, or without the commitment of going into an office for a visit," Ryder affirms.

2. Virtual Communities

If you're looking for good info in a group setting, there's no need to leave the house. New parents can engage in lively discussions by calling into a participatory podcast, tuning into an Instagram Live session, or signing up for an online webinar with top therapists or others addressing postpartum and baby issues. (One podcast we like: Mom & Mind, which gets listeners talking about the reality of new parenthood and is hosted by certified perinatal mental health specialist Dr. Kat Kaeni, PsyD.)

The telehealth service Maven has been sharing its own content across social media channels with insights from providers about the challenges currently on top of new parents' minds—from keeping their mental health in check to sessions on pediatrics. The Motherhood Center offers webinars (many of them free) about parenting during the pandemic and other issues that new parents face.

3. Online Support Groups

Sometimes you just need to talk to someone who has been where you are now—someone who can tell you that things are going to get better (and maybe even give you a timeline). To that end, virtual support groups can play an incredibly valuable role in new parenthood. A few solid places to find some:

4. Lighter Loads

When you're sleep-deprived, healing, and taking care of a new baby, even the simplest tasks (like making a meal or cleaning the house) can feel like they are nearly impossible. In the midst of a pandemic? They can actually be impossible. New parents need to give themselves a break. Instead of trying to do more (and feeling like a failure), they need to learn how to delegate to others.

It can be hard, we know, to envision splashing out for cleaning help, a night nurse, or a postpartum doula, especially when you are facing hospital bills and envisioning college costs. In some cases, it may not even be that easy to find professionals who are available to come to your house. But food delivery services, for example, can be worth the splurge. And if you have a partner, it's essential that you discuss splitting child care duties. You must take time for yourself. "Even being able to take a bath while the baby is sleeping can be much needed self-care," says Dr. Meltzer-Brody.

5. "Good Enough" Parenting

You've likely heard that lowering your expectations as a parent can help you better accept your new, challenging reality. But with COVID-19, life is unpredictable on a daily basis, so you need to reevaluate even more. "It's unrealistic to think we're going to do it all—parent, teach, work, take care of ourselves—without stumbling," says Ryder. If you feel like your current reality contrasts with what you once hoped it would look like, try to embrace "good enough" parenting. It's a concept that comes from pediatrician and psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott, who famously suggested that parents aim for "good enough" rather than "perfect" in order to find a balance between caregiving and personal wellness.

6. Intentional Spaces

Creating structure when your growing family spends long days occupying the same space can be difficult. For mental clarity, Bellenbaum suggests assigning certain tasks to specific areas of your house, which can make your day feel like it's more organized, and less random. Maybe you work in the dining room, exercise in the basement, and just sleep in the bedroom. "We don't have the luxury of having time in between one space and the next, but we can try to designate areas for that," she notes.

Rituals calm the mind. Working on your computer and hear the baby cry? Even doing something as simple as turning around twice before you walk over and get them can help create a feeling of "transition" from one space of your life to another, which will help you feel like you're not doing everything at once (even if you are).

7. Video Visits

Even if you feel ready to start traveling to see relatives in other neighborhoods or cities again, they may not be ready to receive you, or to travel themselves. Many people are still terrified of the potential consequences of contracting COVID-19, even if it seems like some of the world has moved on. That means that new parents often lack the in-person support and visits they desperately crave.

"It takes creative thinking to find ways to ensure there is adequate social support in place to fill these major gaps," says Dr. Meltzer-Brody. Virtual gatherings of family and friends on Zoom or FaceTime are still important, she says. So many of us still balk at the idea of doing video calls, perhaps because they feel impersonal or sterile next to a real-life hug. But you need to expand your idea of what's possible, and recognize how much joy communing with loved ones can bring you even if it's just onscreen.

This is especially important when you're delivering a baby in the hospital or spending those first early days at home with a new child, as in both cases, virtual or limited visits with loved ones may be required. Focusing on the things that you can control (like seeing your family in some capacity), and making peace with the things you can't (like knowing when you'll see them in person) is a form of radical acceptance. Embracing it can help you find adjust to uncertainty, Dr. Meltzer-Brody says.

How to Support New Parents

As noted, new parents benefit enormously from connecting with those who love them, even if it's not happening in person. If you know someone who has recently had a child, here are a few ways to show them that you care, and help them acclimate to parenthood during this unprecedented time.

1. Ask Them How They're Doing

That might sound simple, but all too often when a baby is born the parents are overlooked, says Bellenbaum. Genuinely asking how they are doing and if they need anything shows you care and gives them an outlet to talk about what they're going through. If they say they are struggling, speak up. "Offer to help them find some new parent support groups or treatment options," suggests Bellenbaum.

2. Validate Their Feelings

Another way to help friends who are having a hard time? "Let them know that they are not alone," says Bellenbaum. Parenting is really hard. "If you struggled, tell them it was hard for you too," she emphasizes. "Be honest and real and remind them that all the perfect posts they see on Facebook and Instagram are most likely what people want them to see, not what is really happening behind the scenes."

3. Text Them a New Mantra

It doesn't have to be something grandiose. It just needs to be something they can hold onto during tough times. You've got this. You are a great parent. You are so incredibly strong. Simple words of encouragement like these can really boost a new parent's confidence, and remind them that they're doing a good job—even when they feel like they're not.

4. Give Them Better Gifts

It's unexpected, but sending pregnant pals a book or app with peaceful meditations may be a great comfort as they launch into parenthood. (Expectful is a great option.) For those new mothers who somehow find time to read, consider buying a book that talks about the real maternal experience, like What No One Tells You: A Guide to Your Emotions from Pregnancy to Motherhood.

5. Set Up Virtual Gatherings

Put a smile on the face of your new parent friends by arranging online meet-ups with their nearest and dearest. Ask them what time works best for them, and let them know that they'll have to be dressed! Keep the conversation focused on supporting them and their needs. It can make all the difference.

Cassie Shortsleeve is a freelance writer and founder of the new online motherhood platform Dear Sunday.