When Jennifer Kim gave birth to her third child this past June, she immediately knew it wasn’t going to be like her previous postpartum experiences.
Instead of immediately inviting friends and family over to help her with the newborn, Kim was faced with indoor gathering limits, social distancing rules and travel restrictions.
Those feelings of isolation due to COVID-19 restrictions were nothing new — they had started months before the birth of her daughter.
“Pregnancy and postpartum life during this pandemic has been very different from my other two pregnancies,” she said.
“Not being able to take your partner to appointments, not being able to share the pregnancy or baby with friends and family or visit in the hospital was really sad.”
The Halifax mother knows the benefits of in-person postpartum support well. As part of her Master of Education project after the birth of her eldest son in 2016, she co-ordinated gatherings for new mothers to hear from speakers on topics ranging from infant massage to nutrition and dental health.
That just wasn’t possible this time around.
“Facebook groups have become a major part of a lot of parents, with many moms coming together with varying degrees of experiences trying to make the best of it,” she said.
The ‘virtual village’
Those types of experiences during this global pandemic are exactly what researchers at Dalhousie University are hoping to gain more insight into.
After all, if it takes a village to raise a child, then it may take a virtual one in this COVID-19 world.
Megan Aston, Sheri Lynn Price and Anna McLeod are co-principal investigators on a project titled, The virtual village: How do videoconferencing technologies influence experiences of postpartum education during a pandemic?
The study, which received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Insight Grant, is currently recruiting Nova Scotia mothers, fathers, grandparents and caretakers who are going through the pandemic with a newborn.
“What we’ve found — over decades, really — is mothers, parents, they all say that face to face is the best. So getting together, getting and seeing other people with babies who are of similar age … and just having that social interaction over and over again is really, really important,” said Aston.
“But can we have that not in person, but face to face via Zoom and FaceTime?”
The researchers took part in a study last year, right before the pandemic began, to understand the experiences of parents postpartum. What they found was that some struggles, including difficulties with mental health, were exacerbated by the feelings of isolation by the newly emerging pandemic.
“But at the same time, we also noted that online was being taken up in a different way. So there was many positives that came out of that,” said Aston.
“And so that is what began to prompt us to think, ‘Well, let’s go and see what happens in the virtual world.'”
While on face value, it’s easy to assume that virtual meetings would have their limitations, there are also situations where new parents might find it easier to gather online.
“Some days you can’t make it to the coffee shop with your baby, but knowing that you can FaceTime somebody and feel less isolated or that you can have a Zoom coffee session with other moms … it creates another opportunity,” said Price.
“We know it’s not the same and we know that there are downfalls to it and that it can’t take the place of in-person. But is it better than nothing? And what do we need to have in place to ensure that it’s a safe, resourceful, evidence-based (experience)?”
The researchers hope to conduct their study and have findings within a year. The information, they say, will be useful in shaping programs and support for new parents.
“There have been online prenatal classes, online postpartum classes in the past, but not in this way with the visual, with the Zoom,” said Aston.
“So absolutely, this needs to be implemented somehow in the future after COVID.”
The researchers think not only will new parents benefit from this knowledge, but the greater community as well.
“Once this pandemic is over, I think we all realize we can do a lot more and see a lot more people and have meetings somewhat more efficiently than maybe we always have,” said Price.
“So there’s much to be learned from this. I guess that the context (of this study) is postpartum, but I think that the implications are beyond that.”
Use of technology here to stay
For the Kim family, which has extended relatives in Asia, the use of technology and video conferencing is here to stay.
“We have utilized video conferencing options with my husband’s family overseas because we were unable to travel,” explained Kim.
“It isn’t perfect but it helps to at least see and speak to people in a version of face-to-face.”
As a mother of three, Kim is cognizant of what first-time parents may be missing out on during this pandemic.
But she’s also hopeful about the role of technology in the postpartum experience.
“I really feel for first-time moms going through this. They’re missing out on some of the bonding moments we had in the past, but as things begin to calm down there is still a place for the video calls,” she said.
“I think this is one of the benefits of this new era. We have figured out new ways to help each other and bring more accessibility to those who couldn’t travel for whatever reason before.”