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Opinion: Pregnant women in Ireland are left to cope alone in the shadows

We need to better prioritise the care of pregnant women during Covid, writes Fianna Fáil councillor Deirdre Geraghty-Smith.

Deirdre Geraghty-Smith

OVER THE COURSE of the last year we have seen how different groups have been affected in various ways by Covid-19. Family carers, those suffering from acute illnesses or those grieving the loss of loved ones are amongst those who have suffered most greatly.

There’s been ample research to show that the pandemic has disproportionately affected women. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the approach taken toward pregnant women – a cohort that during Covid, has been frozen out of most supports and services beyond the strictly medical.

Medics and midwives in maternity hospitals deliver expert care with compassion and understanding but maternity hospitals are under-resourced and under-invested. Many of the buildings and facilities are old, crowded and not fit for purpose.

Women’s health comes second

During Covid, critical services in the community such as specialist physiotherapy, lactation consultants, mental health supports, ante-natal classes have been put beyond reach due to restrictions.

The lack of female voices giving a balanced perspective at the highest levels is surely one factor behind this. Pregnancy is time-limited – and women can’t wait for decision-makers to get their act together.

Much of the public discussion around restrictions has focused on the return of leisure activities like pubs, hairdressers, travel and sports, but has largely ignored the fact that women in pregnancy are still – as one new mother described it to me – ‘left to cope alone in the shadows’.

Of course, I understand that there are economic reasons driving the agenda and these are critically important sectors of our economy. But pregnant women are also contributing to the economy by the very fact that they are birthing and raising the next generation of workers, artists, entrepreneurs, sportspersons, CEOs and political leaders.

Consider this: we know that approximately 12,500 pregnancies will have been registered in the first quarter of this year. Of these, six cases of stillbirths as a result of Covid placentitis have been recorded. Yet there has been minimal discussion of this and no distinct policy response.

In contrast, in the US we have seen six cases of blood clots from 6,000,000 vaccinations administered. Panic ensued and global vaccination programmes ground to a halt. We must ask ourselves, why the difference? Why do we broadly continue to ignore issues relating to women’s health?

Broader care also suffering

Issues with restrictions are not simply a matter of partners’ attendance at scans or birth. Women are being denied critical supports in the lead up to birth and in the crucial fourth trimester.

The fourth trimester is when a woman needs to physically and mentally recover from childbirth whilst caring for her new baby. If she has other children, she now has no help with childcare from her family, her friends, or her community.

Many women are cocooning as a precautionary measure to protect themselves and their babies from Covid yet they are not considered a priority grouping for vaccines. Other women who have suffered pregnancy loss during this time have been forced to cope alone with their grief.

Leaflets are distributed in hospitals warning about the prevalence of Post Natal Depression, but yet for those struggling to cope there are little to no mental health supports available in the community.

We should be very concerned about the mental health impacts on new mothers after childbirth due to the pandemic. Similarly, women and lactation consultants have each said that conducting consultations remotely is not practical.

Breastfeeding is difficult and women need face to face supports. Ireland has one of the lowest rates of breastfeeding in the world and we need to do much more to support women who choose to breastfeed, for their health and that of their babies.

My own experience

I have seen these challenges from two fronts, in my role as a public representative and as a recent new Mum. I lived my entire pregnancy and birth experience during the pandemic. I cocooned from early on and my husband was not allowed to attend any of my scans which was difficult for him.

None of my friends or family saw me pregnant, and I did not get to learn from other mothers at ante-natal classes or attend physiotherapy for the pain that kept me from sleeping. I became angry every time I read another story of a vulnerable woman forced to receive bad news or grieve alone.

At 14 days overdue I agreed to an induction, which I was dreading as I knew this meant I would be alone in the hospital during early labour. My birth plan went out the window but the midwives were brilliant. After 28 hours of labouring alone, I was advised to call my husband and tell him to come in.

Myself and a midwife carried my bags down the corridor to the delivery suite, stopping along the way to lean against the wall and breathe through contractions. It struck me at the time, that my husband would have been carrying my bags had he been there.

I gave birth to a healthy baby girl but ended up with complications requiring blood transfusions, a visit to A&E and numerous consultant’s appointments. I spent the first six weeks post-partum on bed rest as I was too weak to sit or stand.

Thankfully my Mum was in our support bubble which meant I could breastfeed and as my baby fed well, I didn’t need the help of a lactation consultant. I often thought of the many women who did not have the support of family or friends to help them because of Covid.

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My story is not particularly special or unique but is simply one of thousands from the last year. I know too that I am lucky as I got to bring home a healthy baby, where many women and their partners did not.

Covid has sadly consigned pregnant women back to the shadows, and somehow it feels a little like the 1950s again. Five years on from the launch of the National Maternity Strategy – what has changed?

You will often hear said, “once the baby is born healthy that’s all that matters”. It’s not and we need to change this mindset. Mothers matter too and access to a holistic range of services is important.

Even without Covid, crucial services are not always available to women who need them. As a public representative, I can only continue to advocate for women’s health to be prioritised and hope that things are better for my daughter’s generation.

Deirdre Geraghty-Smith is a Fianna Fáil councillor and a member of Meath County Council.


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Deirdre Geraghty-Smith

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