Postnatal depression had a pre-covid estimated prevalence ranging up to 23% in Europe, 33% in Australia, and 64% in America  and is detrimental to both mothers and their children; for instance, it inhibits a mother’s ability to care for herself and her infant [2-3], predisposes mothers to future bouts of depression , and is associated with deficits in a range of child cognitive, social, and physical developmental outcomes [5-9]. Low social support is key risk factor for developing postnatal depression [10-11]; from an evolutionary perspective this is perhaps unsurprising, as humans evolved as cooperative childrearers [12-13], inherently reliant on social support to raise children. For most of our history mothers have raised their children in social environments where dense support networks , of both kin and non-kin [15-17], help with childcare and promote mother-infant wellbeing [18-21]. The importance of wider support remains in high-income settings: public health literature shows that in developed populations social support is important for a range for postnatal health indices [10-11, 22-25], including maternal mental health. The coronavirus pandemic has created a situation in which support from social networks beyond the nuclear family is likely to be even more important to new mothers, as it poses novel risks and stresses for mothers to contend with; whilst at the same time, social distancing measures designed to limit transmission create unprecedented alterations to their access to such support.
On the 23rd March 2020, England entered a period of “national lockdown”, when the government imposed social distancing measures requiring that individuals should stay at home unless exercising, shopping for food, or seeking medical attention, as well as closing many businesses and stopping public gatherings of more than two people. These measures remained in full force until June 14th. These social distancing measures likely changed interactions within the social networks of postnatal mothers in two primary ways: firstly, by limiting in-person contact between social connections beyond the household – particularly significantly this widely included contact between women and their own mothers, a key source of postnatal support, as three-generation households containing young children are rare in the UK . Female social networks also often change in the perinatal period, with new supportive connections built with other women at a similar stage of pregnancy or motherhood [27-28]. As antenatal classes and mother-baby groups were either cancelled or moved online during lockdown, potential interactions between new “mummy friends” were likely prevented, curtailing peer support, particularly for women giving birth after lockdown commenced.
Low social support, as noted, is known to increase the risk of postnatal depression and social isolation also has strong links with depressive onset more generally ; therefore, it is crucial to understand the impact of social distancing measures on maternal mental health and the degree to which remote methods of communication are able to buffer against the detrimental consequences of reduced face-to-face contact. Here we explore how communication with members of a mother’s social network relates to her experience of postnatal depressive symptoms during lockdown in England.