The perinatal period is already emotionally-charged and challenging, so adding a pandemic to the equation is pushing folks into new (and unpaved) terrain. Many expecting parents are buying cribs online, celebrating baby showers over Zoom, giving birth in masks without close friends and family members in the waiting room, and experiencing those first few days with baby without an at-home support system.

These are unprecedented times and social norms have inevitably changed. Some expecting parents are lucky to have friendly neighbors or nearby relatives, but many are living hundreds of miles away from family members who can’t travel, or living at home, alone, without a steady job, or working long, draining hours up until the birth. Even those with support systems are battling the fear of going to appointments alone or catching COVID-19. How can we support these folks during what should be a celebratory time, but might be the most challenging? 

Recognize their mental health needs

We’re all dealing with varying levels of stress at this time, but how do expecting or new parents know if they’re simply experiencing pandemic anxiety (along with their hormones), or if they’re dealing with something more serious?

All pregnant people and new parents are at risk of experiencing perinatal mental health conditions, which can occur at any point while trying to conceive up all the way until approximately one year after giving birth. If an expecting or new parent has a prior history of depression, has poor social support, or is dealing with adverse life events, they’re at a higher risk of experiencing postpartum depression, and approximately one in eight who identify as women will experience postpartum depression. Other conditions to watch out for include perinatal mood and anxiety disorder, PTSD, postpartum anxiety, and postpartum psychosis (which is a life-threatening illness). 

Emma Basch, Psy.D., Licensed Clinical Psychologist, suggests paying attention to mood, sleep, and anxiety, noting the frequency, intensity, and duration of the symptoms. If the parent is feeling distressed more frequently, if their anxiety lasts for a while, or if the symptoms feel particularly intense, then it might be something more serious.

“Symptoms are considered to be disorders when they impair functioning,” says Danielle J. Johnson, MD, FAPA, Chief Medical Officer and Director of the Women’s Mental Health Program at Lindner Center of HOPE. 

If a pregnant friend, coworker, family member, or partner is crying more than usual, showing a lack of interest in themself, in socializing, or in the baby, or if they are having trouble with focus or decision making, or if they’re expressing severe anxieties or fears, you should encourage them to talk to a doctor or mental health professional about their symptoms. 

Nichelle Haynes, DO, a psychiatrist at the Reproductive Psychiatry Clinic of Austin, says one of the best things you can do to support a pregnant person or new parent is to research therapists in their area. You can start at psychologytoday.com and filter by age, gender, and specialty. This can be a time-consuming process and one that you can do supportively, on their behalf. 

Focus on fact-based thinking 

It’s easy to fall down an unhealthy trail of thoughts during this time, but expecting and new parents need a friend to help them control these thoughts and focus on the facts. 

“Work with the mother [or soon-to-be-mother] to come up with a list of some of their concerns. Question the rationale of each of these concerns. What’s the evidence to support these concerns? Explore the best, worst, and most likely outcomes,” says Amanda S. Brown, PMHNP-BC, Nurse Practitioner at New York Presbyterian Hospital.

“New parents need space to grieve [the fact] that their experience of pregnancy and new parenthood is not what they expected or hoped for.”

Throughout this pandemic, we’ve all had to adapt our plans, but consider what expecting and new parents are facing: attending doctor’s visits alone, switching to online childbirth classes, shopping for baby products from the computer, searing for new support groups, and sharing this life-changing day with just their partner or roommate(s) (and maybe a Zoom call). 

“New parents need space to grieve [the fact] that their experience of pregnancy and new parenthood is not what they expected or hoped for,” says Haynes. “New parents need to know it is safe and okay for them to feel a range of feelings right now.”

The best thing you can do, as a friend, neighbor, or even a coworker, is listen. Let them talk through their frustrations, their sadness. Let them rant about their concerns, and be patient as you talk them through their problematic thinking.

“By learning to identify irrational thoughts and replacing them with a rational, healthier alternative, we can help [these people] better manage [their] anxiety,” says Brown.

Support from a distance 

Even if you live close to a loved one who is expecting or has recently given birth, it’s important to keep your physical distance for the safety of the family and of course, the new baby. Rather than dropping by to do chores or watch the baby, you can drop off or send items, such as pre-cooked meals, restaurant gift cards, or monthly subscription services. You can also offer to do grocery runs or pick up parenting supplies, such as diapers or wipes. 

If you live far away, you can send thoughtful, pressure-free text messages, such as “I’m thinking of you,” “I know you’re doing a great job,” “I can’t wait to meet your little one when the timing is right,” suggests Nicole Arzt, MS, licensed marriage and family therapist, which don’t require a response.

You can also offer to do grocery runs or pick up parenting supplies, such as diapers or wipes. 

There are many opportunities for online support groups, parent-baby classes, and group therapy explains Basch. This makes it easier for parents to connect with other parents.

Remind them that these options will still be available, even during a pandemic. And take it a step further by pulling together the resources so they don’t have to.

“New parents need to feel that they are not suddenly alone and without support after being discharged from the hospital and returning home with a new baby,” says Basch. “They need to know that therapists, doulas, lactation specialists, and others who offer postpartum support are still working and are available to them.” 

Celebrate this new journey

Starting this new journey, on top of everything else, can be stressful, exhausting, and downright terrifying, but even during a pandemic it’s important to celebrate.

“This is not the time to sweat the small stuff, but rather to make sure your family is safe and [make sure] they feel loved and cared for,” says Leo Nissola, M.D., clinical scientist and author.

Starting this new journey, on top of everything else, can be stressful, exhausting, and downright terrifying, but even during a pandemic it’s important to celebrate.

Send cards and packages. Offer to drive by and visit from the window. Offer to pick up takeout for the new parents. Find creative ways to share love, in any way you can. Even if you’re just a neighbor, you can drop off pre-cooked meals or you can make a sign of “congratulations.” Friends in other states can send pre-recorded videos which can be watched at any time. 

The pandemic won’t last forever, but parenting will. Make sure you take the time to reach out to these soon-to-be or new parents; they may seem fine, but they need all the support they can get.