It takes a village to raise a child. It’s an age old adage, but for those who have become parents during the global Covid-19 pandemic, the early days of an infant’s life have largely been a time of isolation, uncertainty and loneliness.

At the very end of February, the Welsh government finally announced a small relaxation in Covid restrictions, allowing families with young babies to form exclusive ‘support bubbles.’

First Minister Mark Drakeford said the change would ensure new parents could ‘receive support from friends or family during the crucial first year of a baby’s life,’ but it all comes too little too late for the parents who have already struggled through their baby’s first year with little to no support.

Between the first national lockdown in March 2020 and the recent slackening of restrictions in March 2021, an estimated 30,000 women have given birth in Wales.

For these women, myself included, there has been none of the usual support you would expect at such a precious but challenging time - no routine home visits from health visitors after the birth, no baby groups, no socialising with other new parents, nowhere to seek reassurance or comfort.

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Although some ‘parent and baby’ groups have been set up and hosted virtually, watching tired mothers chase their newly-crawling babies around their living rooms through a screen isn’t quite the same as a face-to-face cup of tea. It also strikes me that these groups have been set up by parents desperately seeking conversation, reassurance and distraction, rather than implemented by official sources.

Overall, Wales has generally been confident in using its devolved powers to make and implement decisions ahead of Westminster, introducing border enforcement and national lockdowns separate to the rest of the UK, but new parents have been seriously overlooked in amongst the creating and easing of Covid restrictions.

In fact, the recent decision to allow support bubbles for families with children under one comes only after a Senedd petition organised by new mum Megan Chhabra reached over 8,000 signatures. Compare this with a petition to allow shops to sell ‘non-essential goods’ which reached over 67,000 signatures in less than a week, and we begin to see the extent of the problem - despite being one of the most crucial roles, parenting is largely undervalued by both society and our government.

Interestingly, friends over the border in England were ahead of the curve, where support bubbles for families with children under one were introduced months ago. In December, I was also thrilled to see that the NHS had finally changed its guidance to say women should be allowed to have their partner there 'at all times' & not just for 'active labour’ - a thrill that turned to disappointment when I saw that this, too, applied only to birthing women in England.

I wrote recently about the difficulties of giving birth during the pandemic, of labouring alone and staying for a week on an unfamiliar postnatal ward with no visitors. Even my husband, the father of our premature baby, couldn’t be with us.

The flood of messages I received after publishing this article helped me to realised that people were interested in the issue, that thousands of women and new parents were suffering in the same way as I had been, but no one was really listening. At least, no one who had enough of a voice to bring about any sort of change.

I feel I should take a moment here to mention Plaid Cymru’s Bethan Sayed, who became a mother herself during the pandemic, and has continually campaigned for the ‘well being’ of ‘overwhelmed’ new parents.

The National Wales: Mari Ellis Dunning, pictured with her son, has found support lacking during lockdownMari Ellis Dunning, pictured with her son, has found support lacking during lockdown

My son is now over eight months old, and since his birth in July last year we’ve been largely isolated. There were a few phone calls from health visitors to ‘check in,’ but no chats over cups of tea, no eye contact or hugs or ‘you’re doing greats.’ Although we’ve spent some time with my immediate family under loose ‘childcare’ allowances, extended family haven’t been able to meet him.

Neither have the majority of my friends, who are some of the most important people in the world to me. It’s been utterly heartbreaking for us all. Since out baby boy’s birth, both my husband’s grandfathers have passed away. We made hasty visits to both ahead of their deaths, wanting to ensure they’d met their great-grandson before it was too late. A combination of precaution and frailty met neither of them where able to hold him, nor come too close.

I know first hand the impact this past year has had on new parents, but what about the ‘Covid Babies’ who know nothing beyond the confines of their own home? Socialisation is imperative for babies, as Drakeford acknowledged when he announced that the change in restrictions would ‘help the baby’s development.’ Why then, has this decision taken so long? In the meantime, babies have been forced to learn to map faces in two-dimensions as friends and family peek through computer screens, stilted and stuttering.

I wonder, how many women and parents have paced their homes alone, day after day, with no respite in the form of lunch dates, coffees, playgroups or walks? How many babies have spent their first year deprived of outside contact, knowing no faces beyond those of their parents? How many grandparents, (many of them first-time grandparents) have missed out on the first year of their grandchildren’s lives? And what about babies on the cusp, those who have recently turned one? Why should they be excluded, at an age when recognition and socialisation are becoming all the more crucial to their development?

It goes without saying that new parents are not the only group to have suffered as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, but there has unquestionably been an uncomfortable sidelining of new parents, particularly mothers, and their small babies since restrictions took hold a year ago.

Certainly, it takes a village to raise a child. But for babies born in 2020 and 2021, the villagers are hidden behind masks, stood two meters away, or hidden behind firmly shut doors.