Lauren Grimwood, whose first baby is due in May, went to the hospital with her husband earlier this week for a routine ultrasound scan. When they arrived, there was a sign on the window: Partners were no longer allowed in. Disappointed, her husband sat in the car. They weren't surprised by the new policy; since the coronavirus outbreak has hit the UK, the couple have been bracing themselves for big changes.
Their long-planned home birth could be banned due to pressures on staffing, and they are worried she could even have to give birth without her partner by her side as the rules are tightened around visitation to limit the spread of the virus. “I’m setting myself up for having to give birth alone in the hospital, anything else is a bonus,” Grimwood said.
She is among many expectant mothers across the UK who are growing increasingly anxious about how the epidemic will impact their labour in the coming weeks and months. BuzzFeed News spoke to a number of pregnant women about rearranged midwife appointments, bans on home births and water births, the possibility of elective caesarean sections (C-sections) being cancelled, and who will care for older siblings during labour if grandparents are meant to stay away.
Preparing for a newborn should be an incredibly exciting, joyous time of life — but women have described feeling as though this had been taken away from them as the virus spreads rapidly through the country, putting households on lockdown and forcing the NHS to limit face-to-face contact between patients and medics.
With cases rising exponentially day by day, everything is subject to change — including the birth plans that women have carefully thought about for months if not years. It’s the uncertainty that’s the worst. A baby’s birth is unpredictable at the best of times; add to that a global pandemic and ever-changing government guidance, and anxiety levels go through the roof.
Over in New York, women at two leading hospitals are being told they must now give birth without their partner or doula by their side, to better protect mothers and babies from the virus — not least because so little is yet known about how the disease affects them. In England, it is up to individual hospital trusts to set their own policy around birthing partners, home births and C-sections, and some places are more extreme than others.
Women have already been warned generally that if their partner is displaying the symptoms of the coronavirus — a new, continuous cough and/or a fever — they will not be allowed in the hospital. But many fear that the rules will become even more stringent in the coming weeks, as the epidemic reaches its peak.
Laura Burgess, a trade union researcher from Manchester whose second baby is due in May, said she was worried she may not be able to have the elective C-section she has planned. She said the hospital had agreed to her request after she suffered an emergency C-section with her first baby two years ago. “But now I’m thinking, because it’s purely for maternal request and there’s no medical need, I’m panicking,” she said. “You hear of things like anaesthetists being pulled away for other patients.”
Burgess, 31, has also seen antenatal appointments rearranged because her local children’s centre has closed due to staffing issues over the coronavirus. There are other knock-on effects too: She had planned for her mother to bring her 2-year-old girl into hospital to visit her baby sibling — a special memory for the whole family — but new visitors rules mean that only her husband will be allowed in the postnatal ward with her.
A spokesperson for St Mary’s Hospital, where Burgess will give birth, said there were no plans to stop elective caesareans, and one birth partner would be allowed in delivery units and the birth centre. No children are allowed to visit any trust premises, unless they are patients. “We are constantly reviewing our hospital policies, in line with national requirements, in order to ensure the utmost safety to our women and staff,” they added.
Meanwhile, with nurseries closing and grandparents told to stay away from youngsters, Burgess said she was struggling to look after her toddler and juggle work in the final few weeks of her pregnancy. “You need to put your feet up for a few weeks before, but with no childcare, there’s no option of doing that,” she said.
She is among many thousands of pregnant women who have turned to social media, particularly private Facebook groups, for reassurance and support from others who are due at similar times. Stories from around the country are being shared here: tales of midwife appointments being cancelled late in the pregnancy, birthing partners banned, and no more home births until further notice. It means those already feeling understandably apprehensive about their upcoming labour are more anxious than ever.
Grimwood, 36, said she and her husband had long planned on a home birth, but she had been hearing more and more stories about home births being discontinued because community midwives were needed in hospitals. At the moment, her local hospital (Luton and Dunstable) is still providing home births, but she is aware that the situation is fast moving and things could change.
“We’ve done so much research around what’s important for the easiest, least invasive labour; environment is so important, fear will prevent you from having an easy birth,” she said.
“I’ve seen in other countries, the US and elsewhere, and now here in England they aren’t allowing any birth partners, which is increasing the fear. What I see happening is all these women will end up giving birth alone, that will increase their fear which will increase their need for interventions, and the need for C-sections and complicated, traumatic labours.”
Grimwood, a consultant for a technology company who grew up in the US, said it was now highly unlikely that her mother could travel to visit the new baby. She had also planned to use her maternity leave to spend some time in the States with her family: “I’ll be upset if I can’t do that.” But she added: “I try to put it in perspective, I try to stay grateful that I have a baby coming, hopefully all will be healthy and all that changes will be that my birth experience changes drastically.”
Luton and Dunstable Hospital told BuzzFeed News that under its current policy, all mothers could have one named birthing partner with them during labour — and during the daytime in the postnatal ward — and they were still supporting home births.
Ilene Machiva, head of midwifery at the hospital, said: “The safety of our women is our top priority, and we’ll continue to monitor the situation closely. My advice to any mother to be is to speak with her local unit directly to ask questions and make sure you are getting reliable information.”
Claire, a lawyer from north London who asked us only to use her first name, is expecting her second baby in August. Her 20-week scan, a milestone appointment in which you can find out the gender of the baby, is coming up next month, but she said she now felt “torn” about it.
“Obviously I want to do the scans to make sure there is no problem with the baby,” she said. “But I feel like at the moment my greatest exposure is going to hospitals. I don’t really want to go.”
She said building work meant she had to walk through the general outpatients section to get to the antenatal clinic at her last appointment, and the soap had run out in the toilets. “I don’t want to have to expose myself to that environment any more than is necessary.”
Claire, 40, also has a 2-year-old daughter and said this experience of being pregnant was in “huge contrast” to the first time round. “I feel it’s just the strangest circumstances to be pregnant again,” she said. “I feel quite anxious and locked away, you can’t share the experience with friends and family very much. My overriding feeling is I just want to get to August and get it over and done with, and everything be OK.”
She has been warned that her husband will not be able to attend the birth if he is ill with coronavirus symptoms. “I’m already thinking of contingency planning, I’d have to potentially get someone else to come with me, maybe my sister or something,” she said. “And I was also planning to ask my mother to look after my daughter, and I want to be careful about her exposure.”
Local midwives have warned Claire that partners are not currently allowed to attend any antenatal appointments like scans, home births and water births have been put on hold, and it is unlikely in the near future that midwives will be able to visit women at home — they will probably have to go to a clinic instead.
Meanwhile, Nina, a teacher from Oxfordshire who asked us not to use her real name, was 10 days overdue when she spoke to BuzzFeed News last week. She said she was worried about having to be induced because her partner would not be allowed to be with her in the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford until she was in active labour. That means she could be in hospital for many long hours, if not days, on her own, waiting for contractions without anyone by her side.
She was also told by the hospital that everyone in her household must be strictly isolated for seven days before the induction. Nina said she thought the induction policy was “quite brutal”. “When the hospital called me yesterday to tell me the new rules, I felt like I was done with the whole thing, because I hadn’t been able to see a midwife for days, they basically told me to monitor movement on my own,” she said.
Nina developed a bad cold on her due date, which meant she was forced to miss crucial appointments with the midwife because they were under strict instructions not to see anyone with a cough. “It was particularly tough at that point, you already feel a bit fed up towards the end and it can be a bit isolating, but I felt extra isolated,” she said.
Nina said she knew it was not the coronavirus because it was not the same symptoms, but her local GP surgery would not check her over despite being 40 weeks pregnant. In the end, she spoke to a doctor through the NHS 111 service who gave her antibiotics for sinusitis. She said it had been “tricky at a difficult time in my pregnancy when I just don’t know when things will happen”.
She has also spent long hours worrying about who will look after their 2-year-old daughter when she goes into labour. The original plan was for her parents to come from South America, but flights were cancelled; she then had a number of friends on standby to help, but then the PM announced that everyone needed to stay home. The hospital also warned her that anyone who helped would have to self-isolate for two weeks afterwards.
“So you essentially have the option of going through labour on your own so your partner can stay at home with the child, or finding someone that is willing to put themselves at risk and then self-isolate,” she said. Now her father-in-law has stepped in and is living with the family for the next few weeks to help.
The John Radcliffe Hospital confirmed that partners were only allowed to attend hospital when women were in “confirmed established labour” and at the birth: “No other visiting is allowed.”
An NHS spokesperson said: “NHS staff are working round the clock to respond to the biggest global health threat in a generation, while also ensuring that people can still access vital services like maternity care in as safe a way as possible.
“This may mean that conversations need to take place between women and their care teams about the best and safest options for their labour, and that there may need to be limits on visitors during labour, though a specific exception can be made if clinical staff also agree it is safe.”
Birte Harlev-Lam, from the Royal College of Midwives, said: “We know this is a really worrying time for pregnant women and having the reassurance of their birth partner is more important than ever.
“If your birth partner does not have COVID-19 or any symptoms, then there should be no barriers to them being with you. However, if they do have COVID-19 or symptoms of it, they won’t be able to be at the birth. This is for your and your baby’s safety, as well as that of the midwives and maternity staff.
“If it’s possible that your birth partner may not be at the birth, start thinking about an alternative birth partners as a back-up. This could be a friend, another family member or a doula. This is a new disease, and, as such, we are developing our knowledge quickly, which means the guidance may change. Remember, you can speak to your midwife to discuss your options."
Nina gave birth to a baby boy on Saturday morning and did not need to be induced. Her husband was by her side. "They've been absolutely amazing," she said of the midwives and NHS staff.