Kathriona Devereux: Maternity hospital restrictions for Covid must be reassessed

For the last six months, partners have been side-lined due to Covid-19 restrictions in maternity hospitals - but something has to change, so says Kathriona Devereux in her weekly column
Kathriona Devereux: Maternity hospital restrictions for Covid must be reassessed

SPECIAL TIME: Women have had to attend scans and go through early labour without their partners during the pandemic

HAVING a baby is one of the biggest life events a person can go through.

The first positive pregnancy test, morning sickness, the 12-week scan, the growing bump, the 20-week anomaly scan, the labour and birth are all major milestones on the road to becoming a mother.

These pregnancy punctuation points are massively important to the mothers and to their partners. But for the last six months, partners have been side-lined in this journey because of Covid-19 restrictions in maternity hospitals.

Understandably, maternity hospitals’ first priority is to protect patients and staff from contracting the virus. By keeping fathers/partners/designated supporters out, you can reduce the risk by halving the numbers of people passing through a given hospital.

Specific restrictions vary across the 19 maternity hospitals around the country. Maternity hospitals like Cork University Maternity Hospital are contemporary, purpose-built buildings, others like Dublin’s Rotunda Hospital are 19th century buildings trying to deliver 21st century care. Creating space to allow physical distancing is an enormous problem.

A chronic lack of investment in maternity services means hospitals were stretched already and overcrowding was common.

There are accounts of compassion, staff discretion and a relaxation of the rules for couples facing pregnancy loss, but in general, partners are unable to attend antenatal appointments or scans during pregnancy, are unable to accompany mothers during the early stages of labour, and are only allowed into delivery rooms during active labour to witness the birth of the baby.

I know dads who have sat in hospital car parks for six hours willing their wives from afar and still nearly missing the birth because “things happened fast in the end”. Then, a hold of the baby, time for a few photos and whispered words and kisses and back to the car park.

Extensive scientific research has shown that actively supporting mothers through pregnancy, labour, birth and breastfeeding improves outcomes.

Will removing a mother’s key supporter at these important stages have negative consequences that we haven’t yet started to measure?

The launch of the government’s ‘Plan for Living with Covid’ last week offered expectant parents no hope of easing of restrictions in maternity hospitals.

Cork TD Holly Cairns raised the issue with Taoiseach Micheál Martin in the Dáil, asking for a nationwide review of restrictions in maternity hospitals to end the “geographical lottery” of women’s birth experiences. He agreed to raise the issue with the acting Chief Medical Officer.

An online petition asking the Government “to urgently remove the restrictions that deny fathers/partners the right to be present with a woman at her ante natal scans and appointments and more importantly to be able to support her throughout the entirety of her labour and beyond 1 hour after the birth of the baby” has almost reached its 40,000 signature target.

I’ve spoken to lots of new parents recently who said they felt safe and minded while giving birth and were full of praise for “amazing” maternity staff but who, at the same time, desperately missed their partners during the whole momentous, life-changing experience.

I’ve also spoken to mothers who had a very difficult time. When things didn’t go according to plan and they were in hospital for extra days, sick, sore, struggling to breastfeed and caring for their baby alone. They will carry those memories with them a lifetime.

There are going to be a lot of babies born while we learn to live with Covid-19. There are going to be a lot of happy tears and sad tears shed by couples on their pregnancy journeys. Pregnancy and birth is a messy and unpredictable business. Doing it alone makes it harder.

Knowing a mother in Kerry giving birth is having a different experience than a mother in Dublin because of varying restrictions doesn’t help the #InThisTogether sentiment.

An outbreak of Covid in a maternity hospital or a neonatal unit is to be avoided at all costs but, perhaps six months into the crisis, it’s time to reflect on the evidence, science and risk management to see how maternity services can let fathers and partners play more of a part in the transformational event of having a baby.

Closing down the whole country and telling everyone ‘Stay Home, Stay Safe’ was the easy part of this Covid-19 saga. Instructing one county to do one thing, and other people living a few miles up the road to do something else is a whole lot trickier.

Telling one cohort of the population they can interact with multiple people from different households but telling mothers they can’t have the emotional and physical support of one person from their own household at a time of heightened stress and anxiety is hard to swallow.

The HSE has announced an additional €600m for the winter health plan. Would greater investment in PPE or on-site rapid testing help ease restrictions in maternity hospitals?

I hope some of the money will be invested in ensuring Irish mothers, babies and families get the support they need, have a positive birth experience, establish breastfeeding successfully, thereby saving the health service money in the long run.

I know lots of brilliant and dedicated people working in maternity services who are trying to make the best of a bad situation.

It’s time to enable and fund them to deliver the standard of care that Irish families deserve while we continue to live with Covid-19.

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