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Maternal mental health during pregnancy and postpartum predicts later emotional and behavioural problems in children. Even though most perinatal mental health problems begin before pregnancy, the consequences of preconception maternal mental health for children's early emotional development have not been prospectively studied.
We used data from two prospective Australian intergenerational cohorts, with 756 women assessed repeatedly for mental health problems before pregnancy between age 13 and 29 years, and during pregnancy and at 1 year postpartum for 1231 subsequent pregnancies. Offspring infant emotional reactivity, an early indicator of differential sensitivity denoting increased risk of emotional problems under adversity, was assessed at 1 year postpartum.
Thirty-seven percent of infants born to mothers with persistent preconception mental health problems were categorised as high in emotional reactivity, compared to 23% born to mothers without preconception history (adjusted OR 2.1, 95% CI 1.4–3.1). Ante- and postnatal maternal depressive symptoms were similarly associated with infant emotional reactivity, but these perinatal associations reduced somewhat after adjustment for prior exposure. Causal mediation analysis further showed that 88% of the preconception risk was a direct effect, not mediated by perinatal exposure.
Maternal preconception mental health problems predict infant emotional reactivity, independently of maternal perinatal mental health; while associations between perinatal depressive symptoms and infant reactivity are partially explained by prior exposure. Findings suggest that processes shaping early vulnerability for later mental disorders arise well before conception. There is an emerging case for expanding developmental theories and trialling preventive interventions in the years before pregnancy.
The purpose of the study was to investigate whether an intervention which focused on enhancing the quality of the mother-infant relationship would prevent the development of postnatal depression (PND) and the associated impairments in parenting and adverse effects on child development.
Recent meta-analyses indicate modest preventive effects of psychological treatments for women vulnerable to the development of PND. However, given the strong evidence for an impact of PND on the quality of the mother–infant relationship and child development, it is notable that there are limited data on the impact of preventive interventions on these outcomes. This is clearly a question that requires research attention. Accordingly, a randomised controlled trial (RCT) was conducted of such a preventive intervention.
A large sample of pregnant women was screened to identify those at risk of PND. In an RCT 91 were randomly assigned to receive the index intervention from research health visitors, and 99 were assigned to a control group who received normal care. In an adjacent area 76 women at risk of PND received the index intervention from trained National Health Service (NHS) health visitors. The index intervention involved 11 home visits, two antenatally and nine postnatally. They were supportive in nature, with specific measures to enhance maternal sensitivity to infant communicative signals, including items from the Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scale. Independent assessments were made at 8 weeks, 18 weeks, and 12 and 18 months postpartum. Assessments were made of maternal mood, maternal sensitivity in mother–infant engagement, and infant behaviour problems, attachment and cognition.
The RCT revealed that the index intervention had no impact on maternal mood, the quality of the maternal parenting behaviours, or infant outcome, although there were suggestions, on some self-report measures, that those with a lower level of antenatal risk experienced benefit. This was also the case for the intervention delivered by trained NHS health visitors. The findings indicate that the approach investigated to preventing PND and its associated problems cannot be recommended.
Psychological interventions for postnatal depression can be beneficial in the short term but their longer-term impact is unknown.
To evaluate the long-term effect on maternal mood of three psychological treatments in relation to routine primary care.
Women with post-partum depression (n=193) were assigned randomly to one of four conditions: routine primary care, non-directive counselling, cognitive–behavioural therapy or psychodynamic therapy. They were assessed immediately after the treatment phase (at 4.5 months) and at 9, 18 and 60 months post-partum.
Compared with the control, all three treatments had a significant impact at 4.5 months on maternal mood (Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale, EPDS). Only psychodynamic therapy produced a rate of reduction in depression (Structured Clinical Interview for DSM–III–R) significantly superior to that of the control. The benefit of treatment was no longer apparent by 9 months post-partum. Treatment did not reduce subsequent episodes of post-partum depression.
Psychological intervention for post-partum depression improves maternal mood (EPDS) in the short term. However, this benefit is not superior to spontaneous remission in the long term.
Postnatal depression is associated with adverse child cognitive and socio-emotional outcome. It is not known whether psychological treatment affects the quality of the mother–child relationship and child outcome.
To evaluate the effect of three psychological treatments on the mother–child relationship and child outcome.
Women with post-partum depression (n=193) were assigned randomly to routine primary care, non-directive counselling, cognitive–behavioural therapy or psychodynamic therapy. The women and their children were assessed at 4.5, 18 and 60 months post-partum.
Indications of a positive benefit were limited. All three treatments had a significant benefit on maternal reports of early difficulties in relationships with the infants; counselling gave better infant emotional and behaviour ratings at 18 months and more sensitive early mother–infant interactions. The treatments had no significant impact on maternal management of early infant behaviour problems, security of infant–mother attachment, infant cognitive development or any child outcome at 5 years.
Early intervention was of short-term benefit to the mother–child relationship and infant behaviour problems. More-prolonged intervention may be needed. Health visitors could deliver this.
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