By Chapel Taylor-Olsen – Utah, USA
We’ve ended up with a distorted sense of time after the last year and a half, but the world didn’t actually stop. It is estimated that 116 million babies were born during just the first 9 months of the pandemic.  Millions of families around the world had to face births in isolation, fear about newborns exposed to COVID-19, reduced lactation support, difficulty accessing specialists, and the stress of a global crisis the likes of which had not been seen in generations. [2,3] Parenting and mothering is no easy feat at the best of times, but the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed what it looks like to carry, birth, and parent children. Now, as the world takes its first shaky steps back out into the light, we need to take stock of what changed, how it affected parents and babies, and what parenting will look like in a post COVID-19 world.
The lockdowns and restrictions affected nursing mothers and parents very differently. For some, it was a gift – more quiet, focused time alone with their new babies helped them establish breastfeeding and feel less stress overall. One mother recalled, “I was inundated with visitors with my first child and often could not feed responsively due to their discomfort with feeding or them wanting to comfort my daughter when she was upset. She had poor growth and I felt enormous pressure from my in-laws, in particular, to supplement with formula. With my second child, there is none of that pressure and I can really see an enormous difference both in his feeding and in my mental health”.  For some, COVID-19 mitigation efforts set helpful boundaries they weren’t able to set for themselves.
However, for others it was a lonely, challenging time where they found it difficult to address breastfeeding struggles without help. “My mother is wonderful and a huge supporter of breastfeeding. I was really looking forward to her coming to visit after my baby was here. I feel I need her, not just to help but emotionally and I’m struggling without this support. It makes everything feel so much harder,” another mother recalled.  Professional and peer-to-peer lactation support were also often hard to come by. Many blame the conditions of lockdown for the dissolution of their breastfeeding relationship before its time. 
Working from Home
Mothers newly working from home may have found it easier to take breaks to nurse their babies or express milk, but most also found that their unpaid workload increased dramatically. Challenges like keeping children quiet during work hours have no easy solutions when schools are closed, playdates are unsafe, and relatives can’t visit. [5,6]
Keeping the family safe in the face of a new and scary illness became the priority, but this was not the only worry that parents in quarantine were left with. New concerns about the lack of socialization for these babies who have never seen other babies have arisen.  As the risk of the virus declines, pressure to address the potential damage of isolation increases and drives many parents to wonder what activities are safe, when to mask and not mask, and with whom to socialize. In the absence of a vaccine for children, many parents are left feeling like they don’t know how to keep their children safe in public. 
Nursing in Public
For nursing parents, getting back out means navigating the often intimidating waters of breastfeeding in public places. For parents who have been staying home with their little ones for the last year, it could be quite a shock to re-emerge and find a society that is not as comfortable with nursing 18-month-olds, as they were with nursing infants. Many mothers find that breastfeeding in public places is less accepted as their child gets older. The first babies born during the early days of the pandemic are now 17-month-old toddlers and they and their parents face a whole new world. For those who have never nursed in public places, the change can feel intimidating. One such mother admitted, “I still do not feel confident enough to feed in public places and feel I need support with positioning to be able to do this”. 
Masks and Social Distance
Many have found relief and joy in finally introducing their new babies to family members and rebuilding social support that has been lacking during the pandemic.  However, being in public now also means masks. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that people who have unvaccinated family members (such as young children who are not yet eligible for the vaccine) follow the recommendations for unvaccinated people including masking in public places, distancing, and frequent handwashing.  Desperate for some level of protection for their nursing children, some parents have searched out milk from vaccinated donors.  One mother told us that she felt awkward about requests from friends for her milk and its potential antibodies. Parents understandably want relief from the pandemic anxiety and it is still likely to be months before vaccines are available for young children. So, for many of us, the masks are here to stay for quite some time.
While mask-wearing is a simple, inexpensive, and effective method of protection, it does create some complications for parents in particular. The more limited field of vision created by masks can make it more difficult to see the baby to help them correctly latch and check on safe positioning while baby-wearing. Some breastfeeding mothers have found that they need to lower their masks while baby latches and at intervals to check on baby while baby-wearing.
On the other hand, some changes have made life easier for nursing parents. The distancing in restaurants and other public spaces has actually been beneficial for some mothers when breastfeeding in public. One mother told us, “…people are all spread out so I feel like no one even notices.” Another pointed out that people don’t look as judgmental with masks on, “People can’t make as judgey expressions with masks.” As restaurants, stadiums, and other public spaces return to full capacity and as more people opt to go mask-less, we may lose these types of benefits.
However, maybe we can take the lessons we’ve learned about what works for us and use them to help draw better boundaries for ourselves and our families. If we liked being home with our young children without the pressures of socializing, let’s make that a higher priority for ourselves going forward: gently limiting family visits, avoiding overcommitting to social engagements and extra-curriculars for the children, etc. If, on the other hand, we discovered that social disconnection leaves us feeling stressed and out of options, we should prioritize finding peer-support groups, reaching out to family and friends (this may need to include careful conversations about vaccination status and comfort level for all involved), and seeking out professional help if needed. Those of us who prefer avoiding crowds and having more personal space can try to avoid peak times at stores, restaurants, and other public spaces. Don’t be afraid to call ahead and discuss when off-peak times are.
A major takeaway, as we consider the impacts of COVID-19, is that it affected people very differently and we are bound to have different experiences post COVID-19 as well. From remote work to social isolation to mask-wearing to telehealth: for some the past year brought changes we didn’t know we needed, for others it has been highly stressful and disheartening. Many of us probably felt a little bit of both. Let’s all give each other the space to be in our own experience and handle reentry into public life in our own way.
Chapel lives with her husband, daughter, son, the world’s curliest labradoodle, three cats, and a foster kitten in rural Utah, United States. She has been a La Leche League Leader for eight years and is now studying to be a nurse. Her hobbies include hiking, playing the ukulele, crocheting, and photography. She also loves researching and writing about health, relationships, and medical issues.
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