St. Paul’s Hospital Parenthood Meetup: A year of community and connection

Monica Clarkson with her new daughter, Olivia. She gets plenty of benefit from the St. Paul's Hospital Maternity Program's meetup group.

“Being a new mom is isolating enough,” says Monica Clarkson, who became a mother in February. “You aren’t going to work, and you don’t have a regular routine.” But being a new mom during a pandemic, she says, “is even more challenging.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, public health cancelled new parent groups. New parents, especially those without a strong local support network, were left to rely on often-contradictory information available online to answer their parenting questions.  

Pandemic limits inspired Parenthood Meetup

As the pandemic dragged on, the maternity program at St. Paul’s Hospital wanted to do something to support new parents like Clarkson with a community space where they could connect with each other, share their questions and concerns, and get reliable medical advice on caring for their baby.

“After brainstorming with a couple of my colleagues, we decided to offer a weekly Zoom meeting for parents,” says Andrea Firmani, clinical nurse educator. “The sessions are free and open to anyone in BC who has a young baby, not just people who gave birth at St. Paul’s”

The group is facilitated by registered nurses, all of whom are also certified as lactation consultants.  Each week, there is a presentation on a topic suggested by the group followed by a question-and-answer period. Depending on the topic, Firmani will ask a physiotherapist or dietician to join a session and share their expertise with the group. The focus is on babies from birth to six months old, but as the group progressed, topics have expanded to include babies up to 12 months old.

Program a lifesaver

Clarkson has been participating in the Parenthood Meetup group since her baby was three months old and she feels it has been a lifesaver for her.

“The group has been life changing for me. Without it, I would have had to call lots of people to get some of the same advice and I probably would have been taking my daughter to the doctor way more often,” she notes. “This group has really helped me maintain my mental health during the pandemic. I wish there were more groups like this, run by nurses and offering reliable medical advice.”

Program feels like community especially in a pandemic

Rosa Diaz gave birth to her son last October and was one of the first participants in the Parenthood Meetup. Originally from Mexico, Diaz and her husband don’t have any family in Vancouver. Even though her son is already a year old, she still attends the group every week.

Rosa Diaz and family

“I really enjoy meeting other Canadian parents and learning from their experiences. It really feels like a community,” says Diaz. “Last year was really difficult – it was my first baby, and I didn’t know anything about being parent. Andrea was there any time I had a question.”

“My husband and I have seen a lot of benefits from participating in the group. We have followed all the recommendations and our baby hasn’t had any serious illnesses, he’s very healthy,” she continues. “For example, we appreciated the recommendation to breastfeed our son until he was six months old. In Mexico, the recommendation is to breastfeed exclusively for only three months.  And the information about various milestones and when to start certain foods has been very helpful.”

Parents province-wide are welcome

The group has grown organically and is advertised via the Born at St. Paul’s Instagram account (@bornatsph). Weekly topics are posted to Instagram in advance and parents participate in as many or as few sessions as they want. While the original intent was to offer it to parents who gave birth at St. Paul’s Hospital, before long, group members were asking if friends or neighbours could join. Firmani is happy to welcome parents from around the province.

“We have had anywhere from 10 to 30 parents in a meeting. Depending on group size, everyone introduces their baby and talks about milestones or challenges,” says Firmani. “Participants need to message @bornatsph on Instagram or email for the meeting link which helps us keep track of who is coming.”

When the group first started, Firmani drew on the public health topics to focus the sessions, with a particular emphasis on breastfeeding. Then, for the first few months, parents suggested topics they were interested in. Firmani organized sessions on topics such as teething, postpartum sexual health and winter safety.

Laura Burke, a meetup member, and son Leo

“As we were being discharged from hospital, my nurse Tina told me about this group. I joined the very next week,” says Laura Burke, a new mom who gave birth to her son Leo in January. “I really like the fact we can ask questions during the meetings. Other parents ask questions I hadn’t even thought about yet.”

Connection to other moms a big advantage

“I really appreciate being able to ask for help. All my family is in Ireland so it is great to have a group of women to connect with. I like seeing the other parents and connecting with new moms with babies who are similar in age to mine,” she continues.

One year later, with pandemic restrictions easing and in-person new parent groups restarting, the St. Paul’s Parenthood Meetup is still going strong.

“It’s easy for parents, they don’t have to pack up baby and travel anywhere,” says Firmani. “Honestly, this group has become one of my favourites things to do. It’s an informal way to connect with new parents for information sharing.”

Firmani is proud of bridging St. Paul’s Hospital and its expert staff to the community through these groups. In future, she would love to see a combination of virtual and in-person parenthood meet up groups.