'I longed for a hand to hold': calls growing for overhaul of maternity restrictions

'I longed for a hand to hold': calls growing for overhaul of maternity restrictions

Orla O’Connor, director of the National Women's Council of Ireland, said the issue of women being supported in pregnancy is not being taken with the seriousness that it needs to be.

The image of a father-to-be coping with Covid-19 restrictions has struck a cord online.

It shows a man standing outside a hospital “hours away” from his first child being born “waving up at herself from outside the hospital on the street”.

“Where do you begin,” the writer, Gar Toohey, asked.


Another woman, who had her baby last June, claimed that she laboured on her own "while my partner sat in a car park for seven hours.

“He talked me through contractions while I shivered with fear. I longed for a hand to hold while I paced an empty hospital ward.”


Both incidents have gone viral on social media with many empathising with the issue.

Currently, at the National Maternity Hospital, a birthing partner can attend the 20-week scan and at the labour ward.

The partner “can attend for two hours pre-labour, full established labour, birth and two hours in the postnatal ward”. 

Similar restrictions apply for other maternity hospitals, like the CUMH and the Rotunda.

Orla O’Connor, director of the National Women's Council of Ireland, said that women have gone through “enormous trauma” having to attend appointments and scans on their own during the pandemic.

“I mean, this is an issue that we have been raising with government for the last number of months.

“Women have been contacting the Women's Council about it and they really feel that there's been so many different announcements in relation to things opening up, how restrictions are being removed.

“But there’s no clear indication in terms of how women who are pregnant are going to be supported [and] how the restrictions are going to be lifted in maternity hospitals."

Ms O’Connor said that every pregnancy is a unique experience but it is a time when “the support of someone close to you is really important”.

She said that people understand there are health and safety issues but there is no clear plan coming from the Government on the issue.

She said that the issue of women being supported in pregnancy is not being taken with the seriousness that it needs to be.

Women are saying to us, this is not a luxury, this is an essential part of their care during pregnancy.

Ms O’Connor added that there is concern and anger that no clear plan has come forward.

She added that the communication is unclear and that with hospitals doing things differently, it is causing confusion.

Speaking at a briefing last week, the HSE’s chief clinical officer said that they want to “remove as much distress as possible”.

Dr Colm Henry said: “Our advice with maternity hospitals is there should be a partner present at the 20-week anomaly scan, during labour and of course the parents should be able to visit in circumstances where a newly born child is in the neonatal intensive care unit. 

"But what's happened has been that during areas of local outbreaks, local interpretation, local public health assessment, there's been a halt [...] of that plan. 

"But certainly, we’re clear now that the guidelines we have, we want to implement it across all 19 maternity units," Dr Henry said. 

"There was some variation and that’s not surprising, given the fact that we had multiple outbreaks and a variation in level of outbreaks in different settings.”

It comes as a report from the Psychological Society of Ireland (PSI) has found some of the restrictions have had a negative impact on women’s mental health.

“Restrictions due to Covid-19 which have resulted in partners’ exclusion until a woman enters the labour ward have negatively impacted maternal mental health and have been associated with increased levels of anxiety and fear of childbirth,” the report states.

It adds that birthing partners provide “vital emotional and physical support” for women during scans and appointments, as well as during labour.

Continuous support during labour has been shown to improve outcomes for women and infants such as decreased birth-interventions and shorter labour.

The PSI said that partners being allowed for scans and during labour was welcome adding that “the acceptance and provision of a variety of birthing choices, including home births should be supported”. 

Speaking to the Irish Examiner last month, the clinical director of the HSE Women and Infant’s Health Programme said that maternity hospitals can begin easing visitor restrictions.

Dr Peter McKenna said families and pregnant women have made “considerable sacrifices” during the pandemic.

Asked what his message is now to maternity units, he said: “I would be asking hospitals to have a close look at their situation and bear in mind the community rate is falling, staff have been vaccinated. 

"Hopefully, they will consider themselves in a position to become more liberal.” 

Each hospital should assess this individually, he said.

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