A new UC San Francisco study discovered that infants whose moms engaged in a mindfulness-based program during pregnancy had improved stress responses at 6 months old. According to Amanda Noroa-Zhou, Ph.D., first author of the study published in Psychosomatic Medicine, this is the first known study to show that a prenatal social intervention may improve health outcomes in children as measured by autonomic nerve system responses.
“It is well recognized that maternal stress during pregnancy raises the likelihood of health problems in children,” said Noroa-Zhou, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist affiliated with UCSF’s Center for Health and Community. “However, we don’t have a solid knowledge of how this process develops and the biological mechanisms underpinning it, or whether we can buffer the consequences of stress on unfavorable health outcomes.”
The researchers evaluated 135 mother-infant dyads from low-income, racially and culturally diverse families who were under a lot of stress in their lives. Infants whose moms participated in an eight-week mindfulness-based program recovered from stressful interactions faster and shown greater self-soothing behavior than those who did not.
A powerful reaction and quick recovery are healthy, since we want our bodies to be ready for action when something goes wrong, then return to normal quickly. Babies whose mothers did not get the intervention had a slower response. They did not respond aggressively until the threat had passed, and they did not quiet down quickly once the threat had passed.Nicki Bush
The ability to “bounce back” from stress is linked to better health outcomes later in life, according to Nicki Bush, PhD, senior author of the study and associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences.
“There has been so little research on what we can do in the positive lane; it’s largely been highlighting the detrimental impacts of prenatal stress,” Bush explained. “This is the next frontier: interventions for women that benefit both mom and baby.”
Quick Recovery from a Stressful Event
The current study builds on a previous one from 2019, which found that the same mindfulness training lowered stress and depression in moms while also improving glucose tolerance and physical activity levels. Mothers were trained in the “still face paradigm” to elicit the infants’ stress response, in which the mothers played with their children for two minutes, then retained a completely neutral facial expression for two minutes while ignoring the babies’ demands for attention. They went through the play-ignore cycle again, finishing with two minutes of play.
During the workout, the researchers used electrodes to collect data on the newborns’ autonomic nervous system activity (fight-or-flight and rest-and-digest responses). Trained observers who were not aware of the infants’ treatment status coded their behavior responses as well.
The fight-or-flight reaction of babies whose moms had completed the mindfulness training was more severe when they were neglected by their mothers and also dissipated more quickly after the stressor was removed than in the control group. Babies in the therapy group also engaged in more self-soothing behaviors, such as sucking their thumbs and staring at their hands.
“A powerful reaction and quick recovery are healthy, since we want our bodies to be ready for action when something goes wrong, then return to normal quickly,” Bush explained. “Babies whose mothers did not get the intervention had a slower response. They did not respond aggressively until the threat had passed, and they did not quiet down quickly once the threat had passed.”
Support for a Two-Generation Approach
According to Bush, the researchers purposefully recruited moms for their research who had a high degree of stress owing to their living situations, such as financial hardship and health issues, to guarantee the intervention worked for individuals who could benefit the most.
“We hope that this kind of data would encourage policymakers and advocates to say, oh, this was an inexpensive, group-based intervention that decreased moms’ sadness and stress while also maybe improving babies’ long-term wellbeing,” Bush said.
In California, such “two-generation” programs that serve caregivers and children at the same time are becoming more popular. The state budget for last year included $800 million for the development of a dyadic care benefit for Medi-Cal patients, which will allow caregivers and babies to be treated for mental health problems together. Home visiting programs, in which pregnant and new mothers are visited by early childhood specialists who provide parenting advice, are set to receive a $50 million boost in the state budget for 2022-23.
“For both mothers and newborns, pregnancy is a tremendous window of opportunity,” Bush said. “As a society, we could save a lot of money while still doing the right thing for the future generation.”