Perinatal Distress During COVID-19: Thematic Analysis of an Online Parenting Forum

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BACKGROUND: The COVID-19 global pandemic has impacted the whole of society, requiring rapid implementation of individual-, population-, and system-level public health responses to contain and reduce the spread of infection. Women in the perinatal period (pregnant, birthing, and postpartum) have unique and timely needs for directives on health, safety, and risk aversion during periods of isolation and physical distancing for themselves, their child or children, and other family members. In addition, they are a vulnerable group at increased risk of psychological distress that may be exacerbated in the context of social support deprivation and a high-risk external environment. OBJECTIVE: The aim of this study is to examine the public discourse of a perinatal cohort to understand unmet health information and support needs, and the impacts on mothering identity and social dynamics in the context of COVID-19. METHODS: A leading Australian online support forum for women pre- through to postbirth was used to interrogate all posts related to COVID-19 from January 27 to May 12, 2020, inclusive. Key search terms included "COVID," "corona," and "pandemic." A three-phase analysis was conducted, including thematic analysis, sentiment analysis, and word frequency calculations. RESULTS: The search yielded 960 posts, of which 831 were included in our analysis. The qualitative thematic analysis demonstrated reasonable understanding, interpretation, and application of relevant restrictions in place, with five emerging themes identified. These were (1) heightened distress related to a high-risk external environment; (2) despair and anticipatory grief due to deprivation of social and family support, and bonding rituals; (3) altered family and support relationships; (4) guilt-tampered happiness; and (5) family future postponed. Sentiment analysis revealed that the content was predominantly negative (very negative: n=537 and moderately negative: n=443 compared to very positive: n=236 and moderately positive: n=340). Negative words were frequently used in the 831 posts with associated derivatives including "worried" (n=165, 19.9%), "risk" (n=143, 17.2%), "anxiety" (n=98, 11.8%), "concerns" (n=74, 8.8%), and "stress" (n=69, 8.3%). CONCLUSIONS: Women in the perinatal period are uniquely impacted by the current pandemic. General information on COVID-19 safe behaviors did not meet the particular needs of this cohort. The lack of nuanced and timely information may exacerbate the risk of psychological and psychosocial distress in this vulnerable, high-risk group. State and federal public health departments need to provide a central repository of information that is targeted, consistent, accessible, timely, and reassuring. Compensatory social and emotional support should be considered, using alternative measures to mitigate the risk of mental health disorders in this cohort.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere22002
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Medical Internet Research
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 7 Sep 2020


  • communication
  • COVID-19
  • health information
  • maternal
  • mental health
  • online support
  • perinatal
  • pregnancy
  • qualitative research
  • sentiment analysis
  • social support
  • thematic analysis
  • word frequency

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