Antonina was 30 weeks pregnant when she and her husband fled fierce fighting in the Donetsk region, two months into Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Fleeing west to Dnipro, she gave birth to a premature girl with severe health complications.
“The war added an immense amount of stress to my pregnancy,” said Antonina*, speaking ahead of the nine-month anniversary of Moscow’s invasion on 24 February.
“I couldn’t sleep with the constant sound of fighting and fear that something may happen to my family. I was so stressed that I ended up getting high blood pressure.
“I knew there was something seriously wrong [with my pregnancy] but we were living in an area with no doctors who could help, so we had to leave.”
The couple’s baby was born with a compromised immune system, needs an inhaler three times a day and is set to be on medication for the next three years.
“Due to all the complications of the pregnancy, we spent several weeks in the hospital,” added Antonina. “We couldn’t even go outside because of my baby’s immune system and her respiratory complications.”
Save The Children said high levels of stress and anxiety during pregnancy can affect a baby’s brain development or immune system and can lead to premature births or even miscarriages.
It quotes a recent study in the journal Infancy that found babies exposed to more stress during pregnancy showed more fear, sadness and distress.
Antonina’s story is not unique. Nine months into the war, more than two million children have been forced to flee the country, two million more are displaced within Ukraine, more than 400 killed and in excess of 800 injured, according to Ukrainian authorities. UN estimates place the number of children killed or injured in Ukraine since February 24 at 1,170.
But while many young lives have been cut short, a new generation of Ukrainian children has been born into conflict.
According to Save the Children, more than 900 babies are estimated to have been born in Ukraine every day since 24 February, a total of about 247,440 infants. As the war has severely complicated access to healthcare across the country, particularly in areas of active conflict, the health of many pregnant people and their newborns is at risk.
“An average of about 900 children a day are being born into a life of uncertainty. The chaos of the war poses a serious threat to these mothers and newborns,” said Sonia Khush, Save the Children’s Country Director in Ukraine. “We’re hearing accounts of women who’ve gone into labour early because of their constant state of stress and fear.
“At the start of the war, many pregnant women were forced to give birth in basements or bunkers. Now, we’re seeing women give birth in overwhelmed hospitals, away from family members, and in countries hosting refugees from Ukraine. Even though there are fewer women giving birth in bunkers compared to earlier this year, their pregnancies are still just as stressful.”
Antonina and her husband Andriy* are now settled in Dnipro with their baby, but their life is still just as uncertain. Andriy is still out of work, because “no one wants to hire him”, said Antonina.
“They only want locals from Dnipro. Andriy is an electrician and a builder, he can do work but just can’t find a job. We have no extended family. It is just us. The only plan we have is to raise a healthy child.”
Because of their precarious financial situation, Antonina and Andriy are living in a collective centre in Dnipro with some 280 others who fled fighting in eastern and southern Ukraine.
* Names have been changed at the request of the interviewees.