April 14, 2020

Pregnant moms across Canada surveyed on COVID-19

Researchers to track babies born during pandemic for brain development

Amanda Jacques, a Calgary mom, is expecting a baby soon.  She is 34 weeks pregnant with her second child. Being pregnant is usually one of the happiest times in a woman’s life, filled with hope and anticipation. But right now, Jacques is deeply worried about the COVID-19 pandemic and how it will affect her baby’s delivery and her baby’s health.

“There are just so many questions right now that I have and everything is so uncertain,” says Jacques, who is physically distancing at home and is taking all the precautions to stay healthy. Her second pregnancy is more complicated than her first, and that adds to the overall stress.

  • Photo above: Amanda Jacques and her two-year-old daughter. Hazel. Photo courtesy Amanda Jacques

“Right now, I don’t know if my partner will be with me when I deliver, if we’ll be in hospital for a shorter period because of COVID, and if I acquire COVID, how we will manage baby care and breastfeeding,” she says. “I try to keep my stress level low, but one of the most frustrating things about being pregnant during a pandemic is that there is a lack of evidence about my risks and the baby’s risks.”

Pregnant moms asked to enrol in survey

To shed light on stress, depression and infant brain development during this time of extreme change,  a research team at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) and Faculty of Arts at the University of Calgary is asking pregnant moms about the impact COVID-19 is having on their mental and physical health. UCalgary researcher Dr. Catherine Lebel, PhD, from the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, is leading the study, building on her prior research on the prenatal environment and paediatric brain development.

The study, called Pregnancy during the COVID-19 pandemic, invites women who are less than 35 weeks pregnant to fill out a series of online questionnaires. The research team will also follow up with these moms throughout the first year of the baby’s life.

“We’ve known for some time that a mother’s mental health can shape the development of the newborn’s brain and influence child development,” says Lebel. “This study will gather important information on how moms are doing during the pandemic, and what types of things can help mitigate the effects of stress. We will ultimately look at child outcomes as well.” Lebel is an associate professor in radiology at the CSM and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Paediatric Neuroimaging.

 

Dr. Catherine Lebel

Catherine Lebel is leading the study.

Lebel has teamed up with Dr. Lianne Tomfohr-Madsen, PhD, and Dr. Gerald Giesbrecht, PhD, also members of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute — each contributing expertise to the study. Tomfohr-Madsen investigates perinatal maternal mental and physical health while Giesbrecht leads a study that examines the psychobiology of stress during pregnancy and the postpartum period.

Enrolment across Canada

The team is aiming to enrol 1,200 pregnant women across Canada, asking them about their health, their worries for their baby, and how life changes during the pandemic have affected them.

“The survey includes standard measures of depression and anxiety, so we can compare with mothers during non-pandemic times, as well as questions about how life and birth plans have changed due to COVID-19,” says Lebel.

The goal of the study is to better understand what can protect pregnant women during times of stress and anxiety, and ultimately to develop better supports to help pregnant moms be resilient during a challenging period. Down the road, the team may also look at the biology of stress, and Lebel hopes to invite moms to bring their babies for an MRI once the COVID-19 restrictions end.

Jacques plans to enrol in the study. “We need more evidence to inform parents. I need to know that the choices I am making are keeping my baby safe and healthy, for now and in the future.”

Lebel emphasizes that depressive and anxiety symptoms during and after pregnancy are not uncommon and adds that these should always be taken seriously. She encourages pregnant women to seek support and talk about how they’re feeling. The study website provides links to resources for mothers to help reduce their anxieties. Learn more. Families can reach the research team at: pregnancy@ucalgary.ca.

This study is supported by community donations through the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation.

Catherine Lebel is an associate professor in the Department of Radiology at the Cumming School of Medicine and an adjunct associate professor at the Werklund School of Education, and is a member of ACHRI, the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, The Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research & Education and the Owerko Centre at the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute.

Lianne Tomfohr-Madsen is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the Faculty of Arts and in the Department of Pediatrics and is a member of ACHRI at CSM and the Owerko Centre at the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute.

Gerald Giesbrecht is an associate professor in the Departments of Paediatrics and Community Health Sciences at CSM and an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the Faculty of Arts and is a member of ACHRI, the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, The Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research & Education and the Owerko Centre at the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute.

Led by the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, Brain and Mental Health is one of six research strategies guiding the University of Calgary toward its Eyes High goals. The strategy provides a unifying direction for brain and mental health research at the university and positions researchers to unlock new discoveries and treatments for brain health in our community.

Gerald Giesbrecht.

Gerald Giesbrecht.

Lianne Tomfohr-Madsen

Lianne Tomfohr-Madsen.