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Coronavirus - We need to talk about parents and babies being separated

Updated: Apr 25, 2020

A growing number of hospitals around the world are separating new-borns for the first weeks of their lives where mothers are suspected of being infected with Covid-19. This appears to be a precautionary measure, as experts suggest it is too early to know if new-born babies exposed to the virus are at increased risk. On top of this Fathers and partners, who may or may not have been able to be present at birth, are likely to be sent home immediately after birth and unable to visit their new-born at all. A report from a maternity worker in France states "from the moment we have a suspicion about a mother, we test her and as a precautionary measure, we separate them. It lasts at least three days, to be sure we have done all the tests, and it can go up to 14 days if the mother is COVID positive.”

So far we have seen similar measures in the US and China despite the World Health Organization recommending that mothers and babies should be kept together and encouraged to breastfeed their baby, with precautionary measures in place such as wearing masks and good hand washing hygiene .

So why are some countries taking measures in to their own hands?

Currently, Britain’s Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists oppose separation in the UK. As standard practice, mothers and babies are kept together after birth if baby doesn’t require care in the neonatal unit. It is recognised that separations may have negative effects on feeding and bonding and a discussion between parent and doctor will weigh up the risks and benefits and care will be individualised for each baby. The guidance may change as we learn more about the virus.

Data is limited considering the infancy of the virus, but so far indicates that coronavirus rarely causes severe cases of Covid-19 in children. Whilst we need to limit the spread of the virus, this should not involve separating babies from their parents without discussing the perceived benefits and risks with those involved at least.

Where data is not limited, is in understanding the important benefits of keeping parents and babies together, the protective qualities of breastfeeding and the importance and regulation of skin to skin contact. We also should acknowledge the history of the negative consequences of being denied our human need for touch and ensure we do not let history repeat itself.

We know beyond doubt that there is nothing more healing than the human touch. Some psychologists term our physical need for human contact ‘touch or skin hunger’ and note that to deny this hunger can have profound emotional and even physical consequences. We are programmed to satisfy this need. Our skin is our external brain, even just 1cm2 contains around 5000 touch receptors.

Nobody needs the comfort of human touch like a developing baby. We only have to look at historical extremities of lack of touch and interaction to see the impact it can have and understand how truly important touch is. Research into a high percentage of babies in orphanages and hospitals dying at the beginning of the 20th century, showed that these babies were fed and medically treated, but they were absolutely deprived of important stimulation, especially touch and affection. Nurses were required to cover their faces with surgical masks and instructed not interact with babies. Parents and other family members were prevented from visiting freely as it was believed this would prevent infections from spreading and to help keep babies healthy. However, instead of getting better the babies got worse. It is suggested that most of these deaths were not due to starvation or disease, but down to severe emotional and sensorial deprivation – in other words, a lack of love and affection.

Photo by Jimmy Conover

Yes this was extreme and likely for extended periods, but it highlights the importance of human connection to our very being. It should never be assumed that it is enough to simply fulfill basic medical and hunger needs.

More recently, experts such as Dr Nils Bergman, through research on skin to skin contact, express that babies and parents who are separated undergo trauma. He particularly advocates zero separation for premature babies, yet we are hearing that parents to these babies may only be allowed an hour of visiting rights in parts of the UK during these unprecedented times. Bergman states that separation disrupts brain architecture and leads to stress management systems that respond at relatively lower thresholds, thereby increasing the risk of stress related physical and mental illness. He believes that we should not be measuring how much skin to skin we are doing, but how many minutes of separation are taking place. His research very much applies to both the baby and the caregiver. Skin to skin contact regulates babies’ heart rate, temperature, breathing, hormones and enables them to pick up essential bacteria to help build their immune systems.

Photo by Sadie Wild

This is the tip of the iceberg on a wealth of evidence showing us that parents and babies belong together and poses the question, are we putting them at more risk of harm by denying this basic human right?

Who does it really serve to separate parents and babies and how can we build bonds following delayed or difficult starts where they are unavoidable?

The positive is, that as humans, it is never too late to bond. Bonding is a process that can be enhanced in many ways through nurturing touch such as skin to skin contact, keeping your baby close, infant massage and responsive parenting. Getting to know your baby through nurturing touch involves all of the senses and incorporates all of the main elements of bonding when done respectfully and with love. Children are born with the innate desire to seek security and relationships from a primary caregiver and secure attachment happens when parents are able to recognise the cues of their child’s behaviour and support the child.

Connected Babies offer IAIM Infant Massage training courses for families and future instructors

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