Health

Mothers-to-be may have suffered complications because of Covid ‘even if they didn’t catch the virus’

Pregnant women may have suffered complications because of Covid even if they did not catch the virus ‘because of the stress of the pandemic’, study claims

  • Study included 115 mothers who gave birth last year at the start of the pandemic
  • Placenta problems tripled among Covid-infected women, but doubled in others
  • Study’s authors said the abnormalities may be down to pandemic-related stress 


Pregnant women may have suffered complications because of Covid — even if they did not catch the virus, a study suggests.

Researchers analysed the placentas from 115 mothers who gave birth during the pandemic.

They found more physical abnormalities than they would have expected to see in a pre-2020 pregnancy.   

Rates of placental problems tripled among mothers with Covid, but doubled even among those who never caught the virus.

Experts suggested this may be down to pandemic-related stress, which can trigger inflammation and structural changes to the vital organ. Charities say more research is needed to understand whether this puts mothers and babies at risk.

Pregnant women may have had complications during Covid even when they did not catch the virus (stock image)

The above picture shows calcification of the placenta in pregnant women in the UK. This is normal shortly before birth, but can cause problems if it happens earlier

The above picture shows calcification of the placenta in pregnant women in the UK. This is normal shortly before birth, but can cause problems if it happens earlier

The above picture shows signals in the placenta indicating there is too much of the blood clotting protein fibrin in the placenta ¿ which can restrict babies growth

The above picture shows signals in the placenta indicating there is too much of the blood clotting protein fibrin in the placenta — which can restrict babies growth

Study co-author Professor Alexander Heazell, of Manchester University, said: ‘The increase of placental problems we’ve seen during the pandemic is concerning.

‘But we need more long-term research to understand the full effects of Covid and related stresses on pregnancy.

‘Both clearly affect the placenta but we still can’t tell exactly what that means for the health of mothers and babies. 

‘In the meantime, there must be appropriate psychological care and support available throughout pregnancy, to help reduce the pandemic’s impact on maternal wellbeing.’ 

Does catching Covid put you at higher risk of a miscarriage? 

Pregnant women who catch coronavirus are not more likely to have a miscarriage or stillbirth or to deliver a baby with a low birth weight, a study in February 2021 found.

The research included 4,000 pregnant women in the UK and US and found Covid did not increase the risk of a pregnancy going wrong.

Advice for mothers-to-be during the pandemic has been cautious, with the NHS putting them in a ‘clinically vulnerable’ group. 

But there has been a lack of quality evidence to prove whether they are or aren’t put in extra danger by Covid.

Children seem to barely get sick with the virus unless they already have severe health problems.

And the study, by Imperial College London, suggested the same is true of unborn babies and newborns. No babies died of Covid in the study and only around 10 per cent of them tested positive after birth.

Although women were more likely to die if they had Covid than if they didn’t, this risk was the same as for a non-pregnant woman, suggesting their baby was not a factor.

Premature delivery was more likely in the women testing positive for coronavirus, the researchers found, but this appeared to be because doctors were deciding to induce labour because they were over-cautious about Covid.

The placenta is the first organ to form in foetal development. It acts as the unborn baby’s lungs, gut, kidneys and liver, taking oxygen and nutrients from the mother’s blood stream and exchanging waste.

One in 500 women in the US suffer from placental problems annually, which is thought to be similar to the level in the UK.

Pregnant women were recruited to the study from Canada, France and the UK from March last year — amid the first Covid wave.

Placenta, umbilical cord and fetal membrane samples were taken from mothers for the study, published in the journal Placenta.

Three-quarters of Covid-infected mothers had abnormalities in their placentas.

For comparison, the figure was half this for those who gave birth during the pandemic who did not catch the virus.

But data from numerous studies suggested only a quarter of pregnant mothers developed abnormalities pre-pandemic.

Abnormalities spotted included high levels of the blood clot protein fibrin — which can restrict babies growth, and excess calcification — which is only expected near birth. 

These trigger no symptoms but other conditions like placenta abruption — when it detaches from the womb wall — can spark stomach pain and contractions.

The condition, thought to strike around one in 100 pregnant women, can also raise the risk of a stillbirth or having a premature baby. 

Researchers described these issues as ‘common’ among pregnant mothers during the pandemic, regardless of whether they had been infected.

The research was also supported by Tommy’s, the UK’s largest charity funding research into stillbirths, miscarriages and premature births.

Its CEO Jane Brewin said: ‘Good research evidence takes time, and the pandemic is still unfolding — so while our scientists keep working to understand how this affects pregnancy health, it’s vital that mums-to-be are supported mentally as well as physically. 

‘We’ve seen a huge rise in calls to the midwives on our helpline throughout the last 18 months, as the pandemic has created extra confusion and anxiety for many families along the pregnancy journey. 

‘Services are adapting but they’re still running, so mums shouldn’t hesitate to raise any concerns with their care team and seek help when needed.’ 

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