New study looks at pregnancy during the COVID-19 pandemic

Giving birth and parenting a newborn can be emotional and stressful experiences, but having a pandemic hit during those already difficult times could push the parental stress meter to an even higher level.

That’s why UO psychologist Jen Ablow and an international team of researchers are launching a new study looking at how COVID-19 is affecting birth, pregnancy and parenting.

“We already know that stress can impact birth and developmental outcomes and have lifelong implications for the child,” Ablow said. “This study will explore how the effects of stress are augmented during a pandemic and how a variety of different factors and timelines play out for the parent and infant.”

The COVID-19 and Perinatal Experience Study is a global effort to better understand the short and long-term implications of the coronavirus pandemic on birth and pregnancy. The study, led by researchers from Oregon Health & Science University and New York University, will pool data from 75 research groups from around the world, including Ablow’s in Eugene, and share the results to help improve support for pregnant women and new parents.

The study will examine how several different elements of the pandemic are intersecting with pregnancy and parenting, including demographic, social, occupational, economic and emotional factors and experiences.

The pandemic has altered many aspects of the birth and parenting experience, Ablow explains, as parents have had to consider many changes to their birth and parenting plans, including new restrictions on the number of people that can be present during a hospital birth, the inability to access their planned care options after delivery, which often involve an infant’s grandparents or other relatives, and loss of employment or food security during the pandemic.

Based on an informal review of the first round of data, Ablow is seeing results that indicate the pandemic is causing increased feelings of stress and isolation for parents. The research team plans to share their results to help improve support options for parents in the community.

“Our preliminary results reflect that symptoms of both depression and anxiety have increased during the pandemic,” Ablow reported. “Our hope is that the results from this study, targeted at this exquisitely sensitive period of life, will provide invaluable insights that will improve the lives of millions of parents and their infants.”

Participants can opt to complete the study anonymously, but they are encouraged to submit their contact information so they can be connected with resources to help them address issues that arise during the pandemic. The official website will be regularly updated with information, tips and advice for navigating COVID-19 and pregnancy and parenting. Also available is a resource list for national and local organizations that offer support, telehealth and interventions for parents. 

The research teams also hope to find women interested in participating in the study on an ongoing basis so they can assess how the experiences of pregnancy and parenting changes in relation to COVID-19.

“We already know that stress has short- and long-term implications on a developing child, but there’s so much more we need to know about how and when it translates to specific vulnerabilities for the child,” Ablow said. “The pandemic gives us an opportunity to take a look at how stress is affecting the fetus and then infant.”

Ablow hopes that the ongoing study will help researchers identify when exposure to stress during pregnancy might have the greatest effect on birth outcomes and development. It could also help determine which strategies and interventions could increase resilience during the most vulnerable periods of pregnancy and parenting. 

The study aligns well with Ablow’s expertise, which is focused on early adversity, prenatal stress and maternal mental health. She believes the new study will offer an opportunity to better understand how stress affects the birth experience, which should provide valuable insights that are applicable to the pandemic and beyond. 

Ablow will collect data from Lane County and share findings with the greater group. Ablow also has independent plans for leveraging her work in Lane County into a separate research project and publications.

Because Ablow’s research group is not based in a hospital, she is turning to digital communication, social media and community partners like WellMama to recruit eligible study participants, which include any women who are pregnant or who have given birth in the past six months. The questionnaire is available in both English and Spanish to broaden the demographic scope of the project.

Interested survey participants can take the survey online.

By Emily Halnon, University Communications