Expectant mother Diana Barrios is very pregnant and ready to welcome her first child any day now.
“I’m so excited,” the 33-year-old Chiagoan said. “I want to see him.”
Normally, Barrios said she’d probably lean on her mother for pregnancy support but she’s back in Venezuela. The clinic she’s been going to for her prenatal checkups connected her with a doula, or a childbirth coach. Barrios said her doula has been her main support.
But like everything else with the COVID-19 pandemic, that support has gone virtual.
“I miss her coming to the house,” the mom-to-be said during a call from her home. “But since I still get to talk to her, it’s not overwhelming for me.”
Pregnant women, new mothers and their babies often benefit from home visits from doulas and other providers. But like everything else, prenatal and early childhood programs have had to adjust to social distancing.
Before Illinois’ stay-at-home order, doula Patricia Ceja-Muhsen would visit pregnant mothers like Barrios and new babies in their homes.
“All the education begins while the baby is in the womb,” Ceja-Muhsen said. “The earlier we reach parents to learn about what’s going on is very important.”
During the home visits, they talk about prenatal care, fetal development and how mothers can advocate for themselves. Now, those visits have gone the way of video chats, phone calls and text messages. Ceja-Muhsen is with the Ounce of Prevention, a local organization that provides birth-to-five programs for low-income families.
Ceja-Muhsen checks on babies playing or doing tummy time through videos that parents send her.
“We do talk about how this is helping the baby’s language development, the brain development,” she said. “And just helping her understand the milestones her baby will be going through.”
Researchers have found what happens in development from birth to age five is a major indicator of a person’s success in life. Family support programs, like home-visiting programs, can help close achievement gaps.
“We’re coaching and supporting parents to read their children’s cues,” said Diana Rauner, president of the Ounce of Prevention Fund. “Now, they’re doing that 24/7. That is challenging for anyone, but it’s particularly challenging when you’re anxious about your own health, or your family's health. You’re anxious about paying the rent.”
The organization is providing supplies and emergency money for their families. Of course, it’s much easier to spot specific struggles during a home visit, but doulas and home visitors are at least able to maintain those relationships virtually. Rauner said the greater challenge is bringing in new families.
“There are new babies born every day, and there are new home visiting and doula parents that we would like to bring into our program,” she said. “I think that’s one of the things we’re struggling [with]. … How do we enter into a family's life?”
Rauner said these services might be necessary now more than before because the pandemic can be traumatic, and babies and young children process the world through their parents. She’s worried about how much intake has slowed for the program and she hopes more families will sign up.
In the meantime, Barrios is grateful she connected with a doula before the stay-at-home order was put in place. She originally planned to have her doula in the delivery room but, because of new restrictions, she is only allowed one support person. That will be her husband.
“I really want her to be there and my husband wants her to be there because he knows that she is going to be so helpful for us,” she said. “But if my husband gets sick, then [she’s] going to come with me.”
She’s looking forward to having the doula by her side, at least virtually, when the baby comes home.