Ryan was wearing the now ubiquitous blue surgical mask when his wild-haired son slid into the world at Seattle’s UW Medical Center — Northwest in August 2020. Likewise Kevin. The majority of his face was covered for the first hours after his daughter arrived at St. Anne Hospital in Burien last December. And William and Sara and Alex. In fact, the majority of co-parents today are meeting newborns from behind a mask.
The eyes of these co-parents — and many others served by my doula practice during these “pandemic years” — were the only part of their faces visible to their laboring partners and their newborns as they rode the emotional roller coaster of labor, birth and the early postpartum hours.
Masks required at birth
Requiring parents to mask up in the non-surgical birthing room is just one of the adjustments predicated by COVID-19. And make no mistake: The majority of my clients (and the CDC) feel masks are an important protection for everyone in the room — especially their babies — given the tenacity of the virus. Most don’t resent the requirement, even at this most pivotal and intimate of moments.
Still, parents in my care continue to express a certain sadness about having to cover up. And some have wondered aloud whether masked parents affect newborns in negative ways.
Research is sparse
Research on such concerns comes down to one to two studies at this time. And although some studies are in progress, the pandemic will likely be endemic before we have actual answers on the subject. In the meantime it is very likely masks will remain a part of all births for the remainder of this viral threat and certainly any in the future.
So here’s what I and many of my doctor, midwife, doula and lactation colleagues remind families when they ask about mask impact on newborns and developing babies (and they do ask us):
What new parents need to hear
First, newborns don’t see very far or focus well. Most important at birth is their sense of smell. So get close, even with your mask. Your baby will know you.
I remind them we humans have senses for a reason. And babies are incredibly resilient in their use of them. They adapt.
I remind them that nearly one-third of babies are born by surgery. That’s a sad statistic, but the fact is the vast majority develop just fine. I remind them that blind and deaf babies and those who spend time in heavily masked neonatal intensive care units bond successfully with their parents. I remind them that babies are brilliant: They use whatever sense or synapse is at their disposal to get to know their parents and caregivers and get what they need to grow and thrive..
What I need to remember
I like to remind myself of a few things as well.
I tell myself parents, too, are resilient. Such worries are new but normal. Concern is part of becoming the great protector of a tiny new human.
I remind myself and parents that providers in all birth settings continue to find ways to flex in support of parent-baby connection despite the need for increased caution. Most Puget Sound-area hospitals and birthing centers all both parents to unmask when providers are out of the room. And many try to take their leave before the golden hour — the critical window after birth when skin-to-skin contact with a parent (usually the mother) helps a baby to regulate temperature, control respiration and reduce the chance of low blood sugar — has passed.
A few colleagues recently reminded me that more important than what masks do cover is what they don’t cover: the eyes.
“I’m meeting lots of smiling babies on my exam table who are clearly responding to my smiling voice and my smiling eyes,” lactation consultant Dana Hall, IBCLC said. I’m meeting those babies, too.
Our resilient kids may surprise us
I like to believe that our COVID babies will inform and surprise us. Perhaps those studies just now getting underway will find they have stronger facial interpretation and recognition skills as a result of adapting to masks.
In my heart of hearts – and from what I’ve seen of the bevy of healthy, well-developing babies born into my practice since 2020 – I’m confident our newest Washingtonians will do just fine despite masking.
Still, that same heart breaks a little at each new birth as the elastic bands snap behind parent ears. It aches most not for the babies, but for the mothers and fathers whose dreams of this life-changing moment probably didn’t include a piece of paper or cloth covering their fear, excitement and joy.