During pregnancy, women go through various physical and emotional changes that make them prone to stress, which can be detrimental to them, as well as the unborn change.
Indeed, past studies have shown that women that suffer from excess stress while expectant, increase the risk of their offspring being susceptible to mental health problems as adults.
A new study published in the Psychosomatic Medicine Journal offers a promising solution to this challenge that can benefit both the mother and her unborn child.
The results of the study, led by the University of California, San Francisco (USCF) have found that women who embrace mindfulness techniques during pregnancy are able to avert the adverse effects of stress during pregnancy.
In addition, mindfulness also makes it possible for their unborn children to begin developing good stress coping mechanism early enough.
This is very important since some of the mental health challenges that affect people – such as depression, anxiety and schizophrenia – are linked to irreversible development challenges, delays or deficiencies that happen way before the child is born.
Mindfulness refers to a type of meditation in which people focus on being intensely aware of what they are sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment.
This is believed to bring about calmness which helps to alleviate feelings of anxiety and depression.
A common mindfulness technique used to avert stress focuses on breathing. When having negative thoughts, people are encouraged to sit down and take deep breaths while closing their eyes.
They are then urged to focus on their breath as it moves in and out of their bodies for just a few minutes each day. This trains the body and the mind to be calm.
Other behaviours that promote mindfulness include making a decision to live in the moment instead of always worrying about the future, as well as people learning to accept themselves as they are.
Mindfulness also incorporates healthy eating behaviors and exercises that promote people’s health status and well-being.
Based on the new study, infants whose mothers participated in a mindfulness-based programme during pregnancy had healthier stress responses at six months old, which is considered a positive indicator with regards to the development of their stress coping mechanisms.
“It is really well established that maternal stress in pregnancy increases the risk for health problems in the children. But we haven’t had a good understanding of how this process unfolds and of the biological mechanisms underlying it, or whether we can buffer the effects of stress on negative health outcomes,” said Dr Noroña-Zhou, a clinical psychologist and lead author of the study that is affiliated with UCSF’s Centre for Health and Community.
According to the researchers, this is the first known study to show that a prenatal (before birth) social intervention may improve health outcomes in offspring, as measured by the responses of the autonomic nervous system which plays a central role in stress management.
The researchers studied 135 mother-infant pairs from low-income, racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds who were experiencing high stress in their lives.
The findings of the study indicated that infants whose mothers underwent an eight-week mindfulness-based program had a faster cardiovascular recovery from stressful interactions as well as more self-soothing behaviour, than those who did not.
Cardiovascular recovery refers to the extent to which elevations in blood pressure or heart rate due to a stressful experience persist after the stressor or problem is no longer present. This determines how fast people can recover from stressful situations.
“An ability to bounce back from stress is tied to better health outcomes later in life,” noted Dr Nicki Bush, a senior author of the study and associate professor of psychiatry and paediatrics in the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences.
The researchers noted that a lot of research has focused on the negative effects of stress in pregnancy but not much has been done on how people can avert these challenges.
“This is the next frontier—interventions for moms that have positive effects on both mom and baby. We hope this kind of data can embolden policymakers and advocates to say, hey, this was an inexpensive, group-based intervention that reduced mothers’ depression and stress, and may improve babies’ long-term well-being at the same time,” said Bush.
“Pregnancy is an incredible window of opportunity for both mothers and babies. We could, as a society, save a lot of money while doing the right thing for the next generation.”
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