The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc across the entire landscape of medicine. In the neonatal intensive care unit — where we care for critically ill babies — family visiting has been curtailed, and new moms have less of an opportunity to learn how to care for their premature babies. Some mothers who are frontline workers must risk exposure to COVID-19 in order to make ends meet and have stopped visiting completely, afraid of exposing their baby’s premature lungs to the virus.
As our country continues to combat this deadly virus, our youngest children and new mothers are facing unique and significant challenges.
Sixteen million babies will be born over the next four years. While neonatologists are skilled at caring for babies who are often born weighing less than two soda cans, President Joe Biden, his administration and Congress can enact policies that will benefit these babies over their entire lives.
Guaranteeing women have access to paid family and medical leave is one way we can better support mothers and their newborns. One of the most agonizing choices new mothers face is whether to remain with their critically-ill infant, or return to work to maintain their employer-sponsored health insurance or continue making a living for their families.
Most employers are required to provide 12 weeks of maternity leave without pay. But, the policy is meaningless for working mothers at the margins of financial stability. Paid family leave has been shown to lead to higher rates of breastfeeding, more consistent infant medical care and reduced infant hospitalizations.
We can also make substantial progress for the mental health of new mothers by extending Medicaid coverage for up to 12 months after birth. Approximately one in six mothers experience post-partum depression, a condition so common that pediatricians screen mothers of their patients for the condition. Untreated post-partum depression can lead to missed infant appointments and vaccinations, increased baby emergency room visits and behavioral problems in toddler-age children.
About one-third of all births in the United States are paid for by Medicaid — but these women are booted off the program in many states after six weeks. This leaves them without the ability to pay for a mental health visit and limits the ability to find a mental health provider. According to a recent study, more than a third of at-risk mothers had difficulty accessing mental health services after leaving the hospital, even while they were still enrolled in Medicaid. We must address these challenges and ensure Medicaid pays for mental health services at equal rates to private health insurance.
Additionally, Biden must reverse policies like the Trump administration’s public charge rule, which have had a chilling effect on immigrant families’ willingness to access key nutrition and health programs. Policies like this one stoked fear among immigrant communities and led to families forgoing critical programs and their long-term health benefits.
These are just a few of the policy changes that can be made to support the health of mothers and babies.
Neonatologists encounter life and death situations daily in our medical practices, but we are only able to help individual patients. That is why we are calling on our nation’s leaders to act. Through common-sense policies, the Biden administration and our legislators can create sweeping, positive change and support the next generation of children.
Drs. Shetal Shah and Lily Lou are members of the Section of Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Shah is also a member of the Pediatric Policy Council and President of New York Chapter 2 of the American Academy of Pediatrics. They wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.