Mindfulness techniques during pregnancy benefits infants’ stress response

Mindfulness techniques during pregnancy benefits infants’ stress response
© iStock/Ridofranz

A new study has discovered that mothers partaking in mindfulness techniques during pregnancy had healthier stress responses in six-month-old infants.

Researchers from the University of California San Francisco set out to understand the influence of mindfulness techniques during pregnancy on infants’ stress responses at six months old. This study is the first of its kind to exhibit that a prenatal social intervention may improve health outcomes in offspring.

“It is well established that maternal stress in pregnancy increases the risk for health problems in the children,” said Noroña-Zhou, PhD, a clinical psychologist affiliated with UCSF’s Center for Health and Community. “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.”

Mindfulness techniques can include focussing on the feeling of your body moving whilst exercising or meditation.

The study was published in Psychosomatic Medicine.

Studying pregnant women experiencing high stress

The researchers employed 135 mothers and their infants from low-income, racially, and ethnically diverse backgrounds who were experiencing highly stressful situations in their lives. The study found that infants whose mothers underwent an eight-week programme that incorporates mindfulness techniques had a faster cardiovascular recovery from stressful interactions as well as more self-soothing behaviour than those who did not.

The ability to recover from stress is tied to better health outcomes later in life, commented Nicki Bush, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and paediatrics in the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences and the senior author on the study.

“There has been so little research on what we can do in the positive lane; it’s been mostly about showing the negative effects of prenatal stress,” Bush said. “This is the next frontier — interventions for mums that have positive effects on both mum and baby.”

Mindfulness techniques for stress and depression

The new study follows research from 2019 that showed that mindfulness techniques and intervention reduced stress and depression in mothers along with improving their glucose intolerance and physical activity levels.

To test the infants’ stress response, mothers were trained in the “still face paradigm”, whereby the mothers played with their children for two minutes, then held a completely neutral facial expression for two minutes and ignored the babies’ bid for attention. They repeated the play-ignore cycle and ended with two minutes of play.

Using electrodes, the researchers collected measurements of the infants’ autonomic nervous system activity – the fight-or-flight and rest-and-digest responses – during the exercise. Trained observers, who were unaware of treatment status, also coded the infants’ behaviour responses.

The experts found that the flight-or-flight response of babies whose mothers have partaken in mindfulness techniques was more acute when they were being ignored by their mothers and receded more quickly after the stressor went away than babies in the control group. The treatment-group babies engaged in self-soothing behaviour, such as sucking their thumbs.

“A strong reaction and quick recovery are healthy because we want our bodies to be ready for action when something is wrong, then go back to normal easily,” Bush said. “The babies whose mothers did not receive the intervention had a more delayed response. They didn’t respond strongly until the threat had passed, and then they didn’t calm down easily after the threat was over.”

The team intentionally chose mothers for their research who had a high level of stress such as financial strain and health challenges to ensure the mindfulness techniques worked for those who might benefit from it the most.

“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 wellbeing at the same time,” Bush said.


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