'Unimaginable': French women criticise childbirth in masks

A new mother tells The Connexion she “couldn’t breathe” during her delivery

15 October 2020
A pregnant woman at a hospital wearing a mask. Many pregnant women who have had to give birth wearing a mask have reported problems, such as difficulties breathing and other medical complicationsMany pregnant women who have had to give birth wearing a mask have reported problems, such as difficulties breathing and other medical complications
By Thomas Brent

A French campaign group says that in half of maternity wards women giving birth are now being made to wear a mask during labour and delivery.

This is sometimes leading to medical complications or post-natal depression, it says.

Stop aux Violences Obstétricales & Gynécologiques (Stop VOG) published a report in July that linked women wearing masks during childbirth with complications such as fevers, abdominal pain, the need to use medical equipment such as forceps, having to use epidurals, and post-natal depression.

The group has gathered many testimonies since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. 

One of the women, Élodie Tomaselli, 26, a pastry chef from Metz, recently had a baby girl. 

Ms Tomaselli with her newborn baby, wearing a mask while at the hospital in Metz

“Breathing with a mask is complicated normally, but when you have to push, when you are in pain, when you are trying to take deep breaths in and out, it’s not easy because you can’t do it,” she told The Connexion.

“It’s not just psychological, it’s physical. I couldn't catch my breath. I just couldn’t.”

Ms Tomaselli did not suffer any complications, but described the experience as “unimaginable”. 

“I took my mask off right at the end because I really could not breathe. But I was made to put it back on right after.”

She said she did not know that she would be made to wear a mask during labour and delivery before entering the maternity ward. 

Other women have written to Stop VOG with similarly distressing stories.

“My delivery was horrible,” a woman who gave birth in Nanterre, a Paris suburb, said.

“I had the same mask during the whole labour; I was unable to breathe properly and therefore unable to push for 12 hours. I suffered a lot and the gynaecologist had to use medical spatulas to help my son out.

“As a result, my son was born with a lump and with amniotic fluid in his lungs and he was transferred to another hospital. As for me, I have a tear that is still healing and trauma for me and my partner. I don't imagine I will ever be able to give birth again,” she wrote.

No government response so far

Delphine Dall, a representative of Stop VOG, told The Connexion currently there is no law in France to say that women must wear masks during childbirth and it was up to each individual maternity ward to decide. 

She said that based on a survey the group carried out, they believe around half of French maternity wards are imposing masks, which she described as an "abuse".

“When you are exhausted and you can’t push you may need the help of a medical team to get the baby out,” Ms Dall said.

“These things can happen because of the stress and distress women have to face normally, but also because wearing a mask is preventing them from being able to push properly during the final phase of birth.”

Health Minister Olivier Véran was asked about the rules during a recent interview televised on BFM TV last week, but he offered no reply, saying, "I cannot tackle a question like this on TV”. 

He said he would refer it to the Collège National des Gynécologues Obstétriciens Français and “probably” also to government advisory body the Haut Conseil de la Santé Publique.

He added that “it does not seem completely unreasonable to continue to protect oneself,” suggesting he agreed with the idea, and said he would give a further response via Twitter.

Ms Dall said his response was “infuriating”. “Mr Véran said he would tweet a reply back, again showing how important the health of women is to him,” she said. 

The mask is just the 'easy option'

Ms Dall said that Stop VOG understands that there is a risk to healthcare staff working in close contact with women giving birth, and it is suggesting two alternative solutions.

“First of all, in the UK, Netherlands, Germany, staff are wearing PPE equipment and wearing FFP2 filter face masks, which means women do not need to wear a mask while giving birth,” she said.

“And also, they could always test the women so that they do not have to wear a mask,” she said.

FFP2 filter masks, unlike standard surgical masks which mostly protect other people, also protect the wearer from inhaling infectious water droplets. 

Ms Dall said that having the pregnant women wear masks is just the “easy option” for the government. 

The Royal College of Midwives in the UK published advice in July stating that pregnant women should not be made to wear masks during labour and delivery.

“NHS England states that patients should not wear facemasks when there is potential for their clinical care to be compromised. Women in labour and giving birth are an example of those in such circumstances,” it wrote.

It added that making a woman wear a mask while giving birth could lead to trauma, exacerbate respiratory issues, cause carbon monoxide toxicity and other complications. 

Ms Dall said that if pregnant women are worried about having to give birth while wearing a mask, they should contact their maternity services in advance and speak to the team to ask about their position on this. 

The group has created an online, interactive map that allows people to see what experiences women have had while giving birth at different hospitals. She said women can also complete an online form with their own experiences. 

Ms Tomaselli, who is now home with her new daughter, said making women wear masks while giving birth should be banned. 

“Making the women wear a mask may be the easiest solution, but it is not the best one,” she said.

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