Coronavirus is having a devastating effect on new parents
Experts have warned of a “tsunami of mental health referrals” among new parents in months to come
Experts have reported increased levels of anxiety, depression and other mental health issues among new parents since the pandemic began. The Government must take urgent action.
Having a new baby is challenging at the best of times. I know this from personal experience as a mum of three. However, when a new mum is isolated at home, unable to receive the expected professional support from health visitors and clinicians, that challenge has undoubtedly become greater, and is causing a lot of understandable anxiety for new mums and calls for something to be done about it.
The coronavirus inquiry being conducted by the Petitions Committee, which I chair, has seen unprecedented levels of engagement from parents about parental leave. Over 220,000 people have signed a petition calling for maternity leave to be extended for three months in light of the crisis. Tens of thousands have shared their views and concerns with us through surveys and social media.
Last month, we held two evidence sessions on the impacts on maternal mental health, childcare, and adoption during the pandemic. Experts reported increased levels of anxiety, depression and other mental health issues among new parents since the outbreak began, with one expecting a “tsunami of mental health referrals” in months to come.
We heard from parents concerned about the impact on their child’s development. They’re worried that the lack of interactions outside their household will hinder development of vital social skills and the potential impact on their child’s ability to settle and thrive when they eventually start nursery.
Baby classes and groups are a lifeline for many as sources of information and support. Those struggling with specific challenges including breastfeeding and mental health issues like post-natal depression are particularly affected by cancellations or moves to online provision. One mum told us that classes and a routine out of the house were a saviour to her mental health, helped develop the bond with her baby and her confidence as a mother.
We were told that lockdown risks creating a “bulge in the care population” through its potentially traumatic effect on vulnerable children, if action isn’t taken. The cross-party Parliamentary Taskforce on Kinship Care, which I also lead, has found similar pressures on kinship carers raising children, especially when they are grandchildren.
The Government must recognise many parents are under greater financial pressure due to the pandemic. Some new mothers have had to return to work earlier than planned, with some seeing hours and income changing drastically. This affects their ability to afford childcare, and, for some, eligibility for free childcare hours. Some fear they’re more vulnerable to redundancy if they take additional time off to look after their children. There is also a greater risk of deepening existing inequalities for women where their careers are impacted.
Mothers approaching the end of maternity leave shared fears about returning to work without time to source childcare or prepare their child for the transition. For some, the only option is to take unpaid leave as their previously arranged childcare no longer has the capacity to look after their child, or relatives who could help previously now need to shield.
The Government must take urgent action. At our last evidence session, we were told we’re the first generation that has the science to know conclusively how parental mental health impacts children in their formative years. There is therefore no excuse if the Government ignores the evidence and fails to act. Hearing personal stories through online engagement and evidence sessions has made it clear how difficult many people on parental leave are finding this pandemic. This feedback will inform the questions we put directly to the minister next week.
My committee is determined to continue to investigate the impact of COVID-19 on communities on behalf of petitioners. Over a thousand petitions a week are being started through petition.parliament.uk – a record for our site – and petitions relating to coronavirus have seen over 3.7 million signatures. We’ve called on the Government to restart debates on petitions and in the meantime we’ll continue to collect evidence, press for answers, and do our best to convey to Government our petitioners’ concerns as our country fights this pandemic.