Giving Birth During Coronavirus Is Every Woman's Nightmare

“The thought of my husband dropping me off at the hospital, me getting checked in alone, getting the epidural shot alone, and not having his hand to hold terrifies me,” says Morgan Pederson, a 32-year-old woman from Queens, New York, who is planning to deliver her second child in June.

Last week two New York hospitals, New York Presbyterian and Mount Sinai, announced that in the face of the coronavirus pandemic they would not allow partners or spouses in the labor and delivery ward or on the postpartum floors. It sparked a flood of concern from around the country. Was this the new norm?

Days later, on March 28, New York governor Andrew Cuomo stepped in, issuing an executive order overruling the decision of private hospital systems and mandating that one support person—without a fever—must be allowed to be present while women are in labor.

Giving birth is a beautiful experience—it’s also one of the most vulnerable times in a woman’s life. Exposed, incapacitated, and in excruciating pain, laboring moms rely on other people—doctors, nurses, midwives, doulas, and especially their partners—for help and support. It’s a marathon that can take hours (or days) and expecting moms aren’t monitored continuously by staff during the entire journey. Throughout the process, nurses only rotate through and check in every few hours unless they are requested. Doctors are typically not present until the patient is already pushing. Often, the delivery floor gets busy, and the time it takes to access medical staff becomes further delayed. And that’s during the best of times.

“It feels numbing. Not real."

Giving birth during the coronavirus is an entirely different ballgame. With the realities of the pandemic intensifying every day, maternity wards have a serious challenge: keep pregnant women, their babies, their families, and healthcare workers safe in the face of COVID-19. “It is time to put all of our faith in our health care professionals,” says Xana Miguelez, M.D., an ob-gyn and attending physician at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami. “Have the certainty that we are all taking care of our patients, your loved ones, with all the care and dedication that you would.”

Still, that can mean hard-to-swallow changes to pregnant women’s birthing plans—and a new reality of social distancing during labor.

Rebecca Garay, 35, who will be giving birth in Miami, is hoping for a vaginal birth after two C-sections. She’s relying on the help of a doula for a challenging delivery so she can stay out of the operating room. Garay was initially hoping to have both her husband and her doula in the delivery room with her. But coronavirus concerns complicated childcare plans for her two older girls, ages 4 and 6. Her husband’s family in Miami are elderly and at high-risk for coronavirus, while her family in New England is unable to travel because of the pandemic. That means her husband will not be present at the birth—he will stay at home with her two girls, while she labors with her doula.

“It feels numbing. Not real. I do not have a choice so I am staying strong, chugging onwards,” says Garay. “I’m just going to do what I can do within my control so I can have the best success of having a vaginal birth and staying out of the OR and getting back to my family ASAP.”

Birthing partners are a crucial part of medical care during labor and delivery, says Jesse Pournaras, a doula serving New York. “Partners are imperative—not only for love, physical, and emotional support—but they bear witness. They can alert medical teams when something is amiss, when there is a medical emergency, or when the patient cannot reach staff themselves,” she says.

"You don’t think you’ll have your first child during the height of a global pandemic.”

The uncertainty over how hospital policies may change in the coming days is prompting some women to consider alternatives. “For my husband and I, laboring alone is not an option,” says Sierra Lawe, a 36 year old who was planning to have her first child at a birthing center in Berkeley, California. Midwives have warned her and her husband that if a medical situation arises—if the providers or the couple are sick or if there is an emergency—Lawe and her husband need to prepare for a possible solo birth at a hospital. "It seems like any sense of autonomy that expectant parents may have had at one time has vanished,” Lawe says. “I can’t even begin to imagine how I would get through labor without my husband there.”

The couple is now preparing for a potential home birth, but Lawe says the equipment has been difficult to find. “It’s like every pregnant person is trying to get supplies for a last-minute home birth,” she says. “I’m a Type-A planner and this is beyond the realm of things I could have planned for, including a home birth. You don’t think you’ll have your first child during the height of a global pandemic.”

For women who spend months envisioning the moment they’ll welcome their child into the world, even the smallest changes can be bitterly disappointing. “I had an image of my parents bringing my toddler to the hospital and having our toddler and our baby in matching outfits as they met for the first time,” says Maggie Kenner, 33, who is due to give birth to her second child in April at a hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio. The hospital currently has a one support person policy in place which means Kenner’s daughter won’t be able to meet her new sister right away. “That will have to wait until we get home,” she says.

Social distancing during labor can be scary. Doula Jesse Pournaras offers some tips on how to get through laboring and delivering with reduced support:

  • Bring a rolling bag in case you’ll be escorting yourself from the entrance of the hospital to the labor and delivery ward. If you’re in active labor, it’s going to be difficult to walk, let alone carry anything.

  • Bring a computer or a tablet with a stand so you can continuously FaceTime, Zoom, or Skype with your loved ones or support people. Many doulas are now offering virtual support services.

  • Be vocal and don’t feel guilty about pressing the call button for any need or concern including water, going to the bathroom, changing pads or sheets, any type of sensation you’re concerned about, or if you need help.

Minhae Shim Roth is a writer and reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow her on Instagram @momphdblog.

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