Jeremy Lasek – PHAA
COVID-19 seems to have thrown everything at us. In Australia, this includes both ‘baby busts’ and ‘baby booms’.
Remember back to those early months of the pandemic when there was wild speculation of a nationwide ‘baby boom’, as Aussie couples were holed up during lengthy lockdowns with time on their hands?
The stats tell two very different stories.
In 2020, year one of the pandemic, Australia’s birth rate actually hit rock bottom.
During 2020, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australia registered 294,369 births, a fall of 11,463 births compared to 2019. The total fertility rate, defined as ‘the number of births per woman’ fell almost 4.6% between 2019 and 2020, to a low of 1.58 births per woman.
Given these figures were for 2020, it’s difficult to blame the pandemic for the decline. Most babies born that year were conceived prior to COVID-19 arriving in Australia in late January 2020.
From baby ‘bust’ to baby ‘boom’
Fast forward to 2021, and in stark contrast to year one of the pandemic, there was a record number of babies (19,113 in total) born in NSW during the April to June 2021 quarter. That’s a nine percent rise compared to its 2020 counterpart. This marks the highest number of births since these quarterly records began in 2010.
In Victoria, Health Minister Martin Foley also indicated surging birth rates were occurring, telling parliament in June last year that the maternity system in Victoria was ‘at breaking point’, and that, ‘we are in fact … going through a massive baby boom in Victoria, at record levels.’
How have the new mums coped?
With the birth of so many babies, there is a question of how those new mums coped through lockdown periods, social isolation and a time of general uncertainty and anxiety.
A study just released, ‘Worn-out but happy’: Postpartum Women’s Mental Health and Wellbeing During COVID-19 Restrictions in Australia’ highlights this issue, capturing the views of a cohort that received less attention than other vulnerable groups during these difficult times.
Note: According to Wang et al, ‘Postpartum depression (PPD) is the most common psychological condition following childbirth, and may have a detrimental effect on the social and cognitive health of spouses, infants, and children.’
It is the first study to explore how new mums in Australia were coping during the challenging periods of the pandemic.
Lead author, PhD student Hannah Christie, from the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute at the University of Wollongong, said the survey resulted from the experiences of her friends who’d given birth since the pandemic began.
‘They were explaining to me that they were struggling with all the lockdown protocols that were being put in place.’ Hannah said. ‘So, I decided to see whether the feelings my friends were feeling was consistent with the rest of Australia. I also noticed that a lot of the postpartum programs such as mothers’ groups, etc, had been cancelled, and I wanted to see if the removal of those programs was impacting women.’
The article states that its aim “was to explore the mental health, wellbeing and health behaviours of mothers up to 12 months postpartum, while living in Australia” under some of the strictest COVID-19 restrictions.
Most were tired, but happy
The study reported that, overall, the majority of the 139 mums surveyed “reported normal scores in depression, anxiety and stress symptoms” during the lockdown, and “despite being worn out most [were] happy at least a good bit of the time.”
‘While I haven’t had kids myself, I’ve always seen mums being resilient,’ Hannah said. ‘This research has really shown that whilst their lives are chaotic during this postpartum period (with hormone changes, managing going back to work, life with a newborn or having multiple children, etc), adding lockdown protocols and an international pandemic to their day-to-day has seen many of them take it in their stride.’
According to this exercise scientist who encourages women to be physically active, ‘it was interesting to see the correlation/regression analysis between holding value for socialising with friends and the women’s levels of physical activity. One of the main predictors for women’s levels of physical activity during lockdown was the value they held on socialising with friends (i.e. the more value they had on socialising with friends, the less physical activity they were doing). This is interesting as we were allowed to be physically active with one other person (outside of our household) during lockdown (depending on the state/lockdown limits). This suggests women were perhaps utilising FaceTime or Zoom as a way of socialising as opposed to going for a walk,’ Hannah said.
Lessons learnt for the future
With no sign of this pandemic ending any time soon, Hannah hopes her team’s research will benefit new Australian mums in the short-term.
‘Originally, we thought this study would be able to acknowledge there were changes in postpartum mums’ health during lockdown, and once we were out of this pandemic it could tell us where we would now need to pick up the pieces in the aftermath,’ Hannah said.
‘However, here we are going through this again for the third year. This study means we will be able to see how mums will potentially react to the next year of lockdowns, and therefore allow us to have an upper hand in providing these women support in order to ensure their health outcomes can be as positive as possible for them.
‘This survey also allowed us to see how postpartum women reacted to a situation that they never could have predicted. It will allow for our healthcare system to adapt and provide services to these women over the next few years to ensure the support given to them by their health care practitioners is appropriate.’
Footnote: The study ‘Worn-out but happy’: Postpartum Women’s Mental Health and Wellbeing During COVID-19 Restrictions in Australia’ was jointly authored by Hannah Christie, Kassia Beetham, Elizabeth Stratton and Monique Francois.
Image: Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash