Childbirth should be a time of celebration and bonding, but for NICU parents, getting access to their newborns is difficult during a global pandemic.
“I had to hold him wearing my mask, gloves and gown at all times and no breastfeeding was allowed,” said Maegen Boote, who was cut off from her family before she gave birth to her son, Johan, who had a five-week hospital stay.
Her journey into motherhood started with being placed in isolation waiting for her Covid-19 test results. While in isolation she was also moved to another hospital as the one she was in did not have space in the NICU for her child.
She said: “I was not able to bond with him.”
Maegan added she did not see her husband for the five days of isolation and that he was only allowed to be present at their child’s birth and then was asked to leave shortly thereafter.
Due to her condition, she was not able to see her son for 48 hours. She took her son daily milk while only being allowed to visit for one hour. After 2.5 weeks she was allowed to hold him for the first time, but no kangaroo care was allowed. Kangaroo care is when a newborn is placed on the mother’s chest to promote bonding and breastmilk creation.
Maegen recalls: “It was so tough, and I felt really detached from him, I didn’t feel like a real mother. As a first-time mom, I did not realise, but this has really impacted my breastfeeding journey with him.”
After a few days of him on the bottle, the hospital asked Maegan to spend two nights in hospital, where she had another Covid-19 test and was put into the isolation ward and given her baby to breastfeed.
“This was the first time I was allowed to hold him with skin to skin contact, I recall crying so much. All the emotions of four weeks’ stress came pouring out. He didn’t really latch and I battled to get him to feed. They sent us home two days later.
For about two weeks after, Maegan battled to breastfeed and her baby was not picking up weight: “It was such a struggle and he was not picking up weight at all. I felt like all aspects of motherhood had been taking away from me: no natural birth, five weeks without with my baby and now not being able to feed him the way a mother should.”
She then got in touch with a lactation consultant who helped Johan to latch.
“I am still feeding him four weeks later. The relief and happiness I feel is amazing, I finally feel like I’m bonding with my baby.”
The visitation rules started off being just one parent for one hour per day. And it had to be the same parent.
“So essentially moms were always able to see their babies for maximum of one hour per day while wearing a mask,” said Jenny* who gave birth to twin boys on 26 April.
During this time fathers were not allowed at all. That rule was relaxed somewhat to allow for either parent to come, so parents were able to alternate going to see their babies. And, last week, they made a special exception for twin parents to allow one hour per parent per baby per day, essentially allowing twin parents to each go and see one baby at the same time.
“Once you start breastfeeding, you may not leave the hospital and return, not even to go to get a bite to eat. Mothers sit in the hospital waiting room for 6-9 hours per day entering the NICU only to feed and then wait in the waiting room again for another 3 hours to pass to be able to go in briefly again to feed,” said Jenny.
Emotionally these rules have really taken a toll.
“My sons were over two months old before I held them for the first time. Given that I have never kangaroo cared with them or interacted with them without my mask on, I don’t even know what they smell like. The rules forcing moms to spend all day every day in a hospital waiting room have not changed the way I feed my babies but it has been very difficult.
“A cold hospital waiting area is not good for morale and stress levels or for milk production. The lack of kangaroo care also takes its toll on milk production as well as the general separation from the babies. Pumping is also really difficult when you have such limited interaction with your babies and aren’t allowed to do it next to their incubators to bond.”
Tammy Bell started her NICU time with her daughter Chloe, who was born four days before lockdown started. She said that this time with her baby in NICU “has been the hardest journey of our lives”.
“It’s the loneliest I have ever felt,” she said.
Her NICU experience was 70 days long. The visitation rules became stricter as the lockdown progressed.
Tammy said: There were extremely strict screening protocols each day, and that they had to have Covid testing.
“We understood the need for it and we had to wear a mask at all times unless we were alone with our baby. The visitation rules changed to one parent per day but the parent could stay all day until 5pm.”
Tammy explained that for her the restrictions made it very difficult to care for both of her children.
“At the beginning of our NICU stay we also had an 11-month-old, so essentially I had another baby at home. It was very difficult once my husband went back to work.
“When I started breastfeeding, I had to stay at the hospital the whole day and it was difficult to find someone to look after my other daughter. The stress of Covid-19 obviously had an effect on supply. It is a very stressful thing to have a baby in NICU in the first place and then to throw in a national wide lockdown and global pandemic to the mix took its toll.
“You are isolated from family and friends and then my husband had to go back to work. My breastmilk supply was very very low and it only picked up when she got home. It is hard not to have support from your friends and family during this time.”
Carey Haupt is a registered dietician, certified lactation consultant and a director of My Breastpump, importer of Ameda Breast Pumps. Her passion for breastfeeding and assisting parents of babies that are born prematurely started with her own experience of prematurity with both her children. Carey helps mothers with individualised consultations, group talks and also provides breastfeeding education to other healthcare workers.
At the beginning of the pandemic, a Facebook petition was launched by NICU mothers asking for more access to their babies and this immediately got my attention. Having experienced NICU with both of my children, I know how hard isolating is and how much support and comfort is needed from your partner and family.
*Some names have been changed as some mothers’ babies are still in the NICU