Pandemic Grief Can Come Between Mothers and Their Newborns

Among the many negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic may be damage to the bond between mothers and their infants, researchers say.

Women who experienced grief and depression due to pandemic-related losses may find it more difficult to form this all-important emotional connection with their babies, according to a new study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, in Boston.

“Becoming a mother is a complex experience, and the postpartum period is a time when women may be at increased risk for mental health concerns,” said study co-author Cindy Liu, of the hospital’s pediatric newborn medicine and psychiatry departments.

“Maternal emotional experiences linked to the pandemic may have an effect on the new and formative relationships being established between mothers and infants,” Liu added.

For the study, the researchers used data from the PEACE study (Perinatal Experiences and COVID-19 Effects), conducted between May and August 2020. Women who gave birth during the previous six months were recruited to participate. New mothers were asked to rate levels of mother-infant bonding. The team included language about signs and symptoms of grief, asking women if they had been “feeling stunned or dazed,” “feeling that life is empty” or “feeling bitter.”

The investigators found that symptoms of depression were associated with lower ratings of mother-infant bonding. Higher levels of self-efficacy – a mother’s confidence in her parenting and caregiving abilities – was associated with higher levels of bonding.

Anxiety symptoms were not associated with lower ratings of bonding. And social support, such as that from family, friends or a significant other, were not associated with levels of mother-infant bonding, the findings showed.

“There is currently an emphasis on increased social support and connection during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Liu said in a Harvard University news release. “But our work suggests that we should also consider channeling support toward mothers who are experiencing depression, including those who particularly felt dazed or a sense of the surreal as a result of the pandemic. For mothers, our message is, ‘Don’t dismiss the effects of the pandemic on your well-being and the way it may affect your relationships with others, including with your baby.'”

Women who reported health worries related to COVID-19 were, in contrast, more likely to report higher levels of infant bonding.

The findings may not apply across demographics, the authors noted, because the study included largely white, financially well-off women. It was also subject to participants’ recall bias. In addition, the study could not prove a cause-and-effect link.

Still, Liu said, “Our study underscores the importance of supporting and screening for postpartum depression during maternal follow-up visits and well-child visits. It’s also important to assess the unique COVID-19-related concerns that a family might experience to help foster relationships within the family.”

The findings were published online Oct. 14 in Pediatric Research.

More information

The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has a helpline for people experiencing mental health issues.

SOURCE: Harvard University, news release, Oct. 13, 2021