CORONAVIRUS

‘Quarantennials’ – the babies born during Spain’s coronavirus lockdown

EL PAÍS talks to the parents of newborns welcomed into a strange world of masks and social distancing

A woman wearing a face mask holds her baby on May 25.
A woman wearing a face mask holds her baby on May 25.Eduardo Parra / Europa Press

If the day our children are born is always unique and unforgettable, when it happens during lockdown, it has to be worthy of a mention in the history books. Meet the “quarantennials” – a term coined for babies born during quarantine.

Bruno, Miguel Ángel and Loto all made their debut in the world during the toughest months of the pandemic. Now, they have had their first vaccines, pediatric check-ups, and like all newborns, they are beginning to explore their environment. It is one that is distinctly different; a reality that still feels like fiction in which visits are restricted and hugs and kisses confined to next of kin. The adoring looks – the due of all babies – are concentrated in the eyes of their admirers. There are no smiling mouths or grimaces; the voices are muffled behind the face masks. Now, in the lull after the storm, the parents of these babies talk about their singular experience.

Pregnancy and childbirth

“The situation these families went through during the lockdown from March to June was totally unnatural and abnormal and was accompanied by a feeling of uncertainty and danger,” says Jesica Rodríguez Czaplicki, president of the Spanish Association of Perinatal Psychology. “It is not that the lockdown multiplied the cases of anxiety and postpartum depression; rather it produced an acute reaction to what is already a highly stressful event, and there are a significant number of cases where the emotions have been intensified. We have to be on the look out now for anything that might tip the emotional balance of the mother and assess whether symptoms are disappearing or persisting.”

Bárbara and Pablo welcomed their son Loto on May 3, at Puerta de Hierro University Hospital in Madrid. “When you are suddenly told that you cannot go out in the final stretch of your pregnancy, that you must move, but do so at home, that there will be no preparation for the birth, that the midwife will not be checking your progress, and that there will be no more contact with the hospital, you feel lost,” says Bárbara. “I had to go for my check-ups alone and I was very nervous. They were very matter-of-fact: just telling me that the child was fine. In fact, at the last one, they saw me outside of the doctor’s consultancy, gave me the slip of paper and sent me home.”

Support in the delivery room

“During the birth, a woman needs continuous support, obviously from professionals, but above all from her partner, who is her security figure,” says Rodríguez Czaplicki. The fact that the fathers could not enter the delivery room was one of the most common concerns among the medical teams.

Miguel Ángel was lucky enough to be at the birth of his son, who is also named Miguel Ángel. “Two weeks earlier, they wouldn’t let anyone in,” says Carla, the baby’s mother. “We only knew that he was going to be able to be there at the last moment. We’d been in lockdown for two months and were beginning to fear the worst. Everything was suddenly at a standstill.”

After the birth, we were kept in confinement in the hospital for three days. We showed the baby to my father through the window of the room
Carla, mother of Miguel Ángel

On May 15, at HM Montepríncipe Hospital in Boadilla del Monte, Carla gave birth with her mask on after 22 hours of labor. “They put the baby on me for two seconds and then took him away,” she says. “Everything happened very fast. After the birth, we were kept in confinement in the hospital for three days. We showed the baby to my father through the window of the room. The last time my parents had seen me, I barely had a bump.”

Susana and David’s case was more complicated, perhaps because the lockdown had just begun. Bruno – Susana’s first child and David’s third – arrived in the world on April 14 at the Maternity and Children’s Hospital in A Coruña. As Susana says, “It was the beginning of everything and we were very ignorant about Covid-19; we didn’t think it was important. Then we started to see what it meant. My husband couldn’t be there at the birth, I couldn’t do skin-to-skin contact with my baby and I didn’t see him immediately; he was born at 7am and I didn’t see him until 3pm. I remember it was awful and I cried a lot.”

Hospital policy

The Spanish Health Ministry produced a document titled Information and General Guidelines for Pregnant Women during the lockdown, and each hospital and center created its own criteria based on these guidelines. “Things changed a lot from one day to the next,” explains Dr Tirso Pérez de Medina, head of Gynecology and Obstetrics at Puerta de Hierro Hospital, where up to 700 pregnancies were handled between April and May, 90 of which were Covid-19 cases.

“We have worked with the scientific evidence we had at hand,” he adds. “And there were three cornerstones: the first was to do the PCR test on all pregnant women going into labor; the second was to establish a floor of the hospital for pregnant women with the disease. Finally, in accordance with neonatal practice, we decided to keep the babies with their mothers and implement special precautions such as washing the breast and hands, wearing a mask and having the cradle two meters away unless breastfeeding.”

We have worked with the scientific evidence we had at hand
Dr Tirso Pérez de Medina, Puerta de Hierro Hospital

At that time, it still seemed unlikely that the disease could be passed from mother to baby but, a few days ago, a group of Parisian obstetricians detected the first case of transmission, through the placenta, which changes the outlook.

There has been a positive aspect to bringing home a newborn during lockdown, however. For example, parents have been able to dedicate 100% of their time to their babies. “The first thing we, in perinatal psychology, advise in normal conditions is having quiet, calm, free time, with few visits so that space and time can be dedicated to the arrival of the new baby,” says Jesica. “But that space is only good if it’s voluntary, rather than forced.”

New normality

The new normality is not what these families had envisaged for themselves either. And even less so now, when the disease seems to be spreading again.

Carla and Miguel Ángel are still taking the same precautions they took during lockdown. “With a small child, it’s hard to return to the normality we had before,” says Carla. “You’re afraid you’ll catch it and something will happen to the little one. We continue to shop online, wear masks whenever we go out and only go out for the baby’s walk. The grandparents take him in their arms, but with a mask on, and they don’t kiss him; the relatives who come into our house need to come in clean clothes. And as soon as we come indoors, we disinfect everything.”

Susana and David spent the first two months of their son’s life with regular hospital visits as he had to have an operation for an inguinal hernia a month after his birth. Although Galicia has been less affected than other regions by Covid-19, the hospitals dealt with numerous cases and any visit to the doctor was a risk.

It’s a bit brutal to tell someone you care about that you don’t want them to touch or hold the child
Susana, mother of Bruno

Aside from the anxiety of the operation, David and Susana say they have missed seeing their families. “But there was no choice,” says Susana. “We have had some relatives visit now, and others are still to come. Our day-to-day life at the moment is not much different from how it was when we were in Phase 3. We have more visitors, and things are relaxing with the closest family members. But with friends who come for the first time, we tell them to wear a mask. It’s a bit brutal to tell someone you care about that you don’t want them to touch or hold the child.”

Bárbara and Pablo, meanwhile, say they are careful without being fearful; one of their concerns was that the baby’s interactions with people were confined to their cell phones. “So many video calls, videos, photos,” says Pablo. “We had the screen on before, but now we only let him hear the audio. And it’s better this way. We’re living a normal life – we’ve been out for walks and seen the grandparents – always with a mask, respecting the safety distances, and avoiding very crowded places. We don’t usually go out that much because the three of us have gotten used to living quietly at home.”

Fortunately, so far, the children are unaware of the strangeness of the environment they have been born into. In fact, they will probably only realize how odd it is when they are older and see photos of their first months of life. No doubt they will wonder then why their grandparents always wore masks and did not take them in their arms and why there were so many bottles of hand sanitizer everywhere with everyone washing their hands feverishly. Only then will they grasp just how surreal their first impressions of the world were.

English version by Heather Galloway.

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