Hello Baby Cares / Healthy Start Pittsburgh

Healthy Start staff creatively help mothers through pandemic-era pregnancies

Ask a woman to name something she would not want to do during a pandemic and giving birth would rank pretty high on the list.

But pregnancies can’t be postponed. Happily, a team of highly qualified helpers has gone beyond the call of duty to support women delivering babies in Allegheny County amidst COVID-19.

As one component of its new Hello Baby program for families giving birth in Allegheny County, DHS contracted with Healthy Start to assist families with the most complex needs.

Healthy Start brought its Hello Baby staff, headed by program director Meagan Niebler, on board in February, but they had only a few weeks of planning before COVID-19 dramatically changed the situation. The usual problems that accompany pregnancy were dwarfed by new ones: mothers wondering who could be with them in the hospital, people losing their jobs, physicians switching to telehealth appointments.

The Hello Baby program rollout was delayed until September, but given these extraordinary circumstances, Healthy Start rapidly shifted gears and created “Hello Baby Cares.” By April 22nd, they were offering, as Niebler calls it, “a warm hug to new parents.”

Over the next four months, Hello Baby Cares delivered nearly 200 “care boxes” to new parents, containing diapers, wipes, face masks, hand sanitizer and baby books. Their social workers and family engagement specialists offered listening ears, screened for mental health issues, and connected women to breastfeeding counselors, food pantries, translation assistance and other services to address their needs.

Along with this work, Healthy Start has also provided other crucial support and advocacy for women who were reluctant to give birth in a hospital setting during a pandemic.

“A lot of women were seeking support for home births,” said Jada Shirriel, CEO of Healthy Start. “There was a huge increase in fear about giving birth in a hospital without the desired support people, and many women were foregoing prenatal treatments because they couldn’t bring their other children to appointments. So the full scope of normal care was not being provided.”

In response, Healthy Start developed the Virtual Doula Program, through which doulas provided prenatal education and were then “present” at delivery. Because, early in the pandemic, Magee-Womens Hospital (where nearly half of all Allegheny County births take place) was permitting only one live support person in the delivery room, the doula generally provided birth support by iPad.

“In one of our first births during the pandemic,” Shirriel explained, “labor was not progressing quickly, and the doctor recommended a caesarian section, but the doula advocated for her and she had a successful vaginal delivery. Without the doula’s involvement, the mother would have had to give in.”

As Hello Baby approached its delayed kickoff in September, Healthy Start transitioned the delivery of care boxes and COVID-19 supports to Family Centers throughout Allegheny County, so that its own staff could assume their intended role of assisting high-risk families.

“Hello Baby is a novel program and we still have a lot to learn,” Shirriel said, “but I’ve already seen so much enthusiasm and passion about doing all we can to support positive outcomes for newborns and their families.”