Expecting mothers will have to endure childbirth without their loved ones at two healthcare systems in New York City that have imposed some of the toughest visitor restrictions in the country.

By Megan Falk
March 26, 2020

It's only been two months since the first coronavirus case was confirmed in the United States. But the small outbreak has turned into a widespread pandemic, creating a new "normal" way of life. After-work happy hours transformed into 5 p.m. margaritas over Zoom; daily HIIT classes at boutique studios were swapped with at-home workouts taught by virtual trainers; visits with grandparents and the immunocompromised were canceled altogether. And now, some expecting mothers will have to come to terms with another reality pulled straight from The Twilight Zone: delivering their babies without their partners, family members, and support persons by their sides.

Healthcare networks like Hackensack Meridian Health in New Jersey and Cedars-Sinai in California, among others, will only allow one visitor for women giving birth, additionally requiring these visitors to undergo health screenings before entering the hospitals. But on March 23, NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital took these restrictions one step further, banning all visitors, including spouses/significant others, birthing partners, and support persons (like doulas), for women in labor.

Mt. Sinai Health System in New York City has imposed similar limitations, prohibiting all visitors in its maternity and postpartum units in an effort to prevent COVID-19 exposure to mothers and babies. “We do not take this decision lightly, but these are unprecedented times that require unprecedented steps to protect our patients, their families, and their new babies,” reads a statement from Mt. Sinai Health System in a press release. “We know how important it is to connect with loved ones while in our hospitals and we will do everything we can to virtually connect patients with family and friends.”

Though hospitals are enforcing these measures with good intentions, the actions directly conflict with the World Health Organization’s  (WHO) guidance. The WHO notes that “all pregnant women, including those with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 infections, have the right to high-quality care before, during, and after childbirth,” which includes "having a companion of choice present during delivery."

Having a familiar, trustworthy face in the delivery room isn’t just a source of comfort for women facing this daunting experience; it can actually improve health outcomes. Research suggests that women in labor who receive continuous one-on-one emotional support from individuals like doulas, along with regular nursing care, tend to have shorter labors and are less likely to need painkillers during delivery. They're also less likely to have unplanned C-sections and other emergency operative deliveries, like forceps- or vacuum-assisted births, according to the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists. (Related: Amy Schumer Opens Up About How a Doula Helped Her Through Her Complicated Pregnancy)

What’s more, this in-person support can benefit the mental and emotional health of new mothers. “[Having] an additional support team member to the laboring process, other than your partner, can be helpful in making a potentially stressful experience easier to handle,” says  Sherry A. Ross, M.D., ob-gyn and author of She-ology and She-ology: The She-quel. “A doula can be a useful part of a low- and high-risk pregnancy as a ‘co-team captain.’”

Research backs this up, too. A review of 26 studies involving more than 15,000 women found that support from a chosen family member or friend may increase women's satisfaction with their childbirth experience. Similarly, women who gave birth with the help of a doula had more positive feelings about the birth experience, were less anxious during it, and later had decreased symptoms of depression and improved self-esteem when compared to women who gave birth without a doula, according to a review of 12 randomized studies.

Granted, a partner or spouse might not be able to do much to ease the physical pain of delivery. But some women feel that, in addition to emotional support, having a partner in the delivery room is important on the off-chance that childbirth doesn’t go as planned. On Monday, 36-year-old Caitlin Reste learned that her husband wouldn't be by her side through the birth of their second child, and she began to wonder about all the "what-if-this-goes-wrong" situations. "I said to him, 'This is ridiculous, but I have to say it out loud. If anything happens to me, please just find a nice girl to love our boys,' and then we’re both bawling," Reste tells Shape. Fortunately, Reste had no complications and introduced a healthy baby boy into the world on Tuesday.

While these visitor restrictions may make delivery daunting for those planning on using a doula or labor coach, Dr. Ross notes that a pregnant woman is never alone during labor. A well-trained labor and delivery nurse and experienced obstetrician will be by their side through it all, she explains. Even though the situation is less-than-stellar, Reste says women are strong enough to get through it: "Just know whether it's your first or your second [child], you are a warrior, your body is meant to do this, and you will be ok."

Plus, there are plenty of virtual ways for soon-to-be-moms to receive support from partners or relatives in the delivery room, like texting, sending emails, or connecting via Skype and FaceTime, adds Dr. Ross.

“I ultimately think pregnant women want what is safest for not only her and her partner but also her newborn,” explains Dr. Ross. “The disappointment, which is expected, can be replaced by comfort in knowing your risk of being exposed to a potentially deadly virus is minimized.”

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. As updates about coronavirus COVID-19 continue to evolve, it’s possible that some information and recommendations in this story have changed since initial publication. We encourage you to check in regularly with resources such as the CDC, the WHO, and your local public health department for the most up-to-date data and recommendations.

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