Prenatal mindfulness program improves stress response in infants

Infants whose mothers participated in a mindfulness-based program during pregnancy had healthier stress responses at 6 months of age, according to a new study from UC San Francisco.

This is the first known study to show that a prenatal social intervention can improve offspring health outcomes, as measured by autonomic nervous system responses, said Amanda Noroña-Zhou, PhD, first author of the study in psychosomatic medicine.

“It’s really well established that maternal stress during pregnancy increases the risk of health problems in 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 takes place and the biological mechanisms that underlie it, or whether we can buffer the effects of stress on negative health outcomes.”

The researchers studied 135 mother-child dyads from low-income, racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds who were experiencing high stress in their lives. Infants whose mothers followed an eight-week mindfulness-based program had faster cardiovascular recovery after stressful interactions, as well as more self-soothing behavior, than those who did not.

An ability to “bounce back” from stress is linked to better health outcomes later in life, said Nicki Bush, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences and lead author of the study.

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

Quick recovery after a stressful event

The study follows one from 2019 showing that the same mindfulness intervention reduced stress and depression in mothers, as well as improved their glucose tolerance and physical activity levels.

To elicit the infants’ stress response, mothers were trained in the “still face paradigm”, in which mothers played with their infants for two minutes, then maintained a completely neutral facial expression for two minutes and ignored requests for help. beware of babies. They repeated the play-skip cycle and finished 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 exercise. Trained observers, who were unaware of treatment status, also coded the infants’ behavioral responses.

The fight-or-flight response of babies whose mothers had completed the mindfulness program was more acute when they were ignored by their mothers and also recoiled more quickly after the stressor subsided than babies in the control group. Babies in the treatment group exhibited more self-soothing behavior, such as sucking their thumbs and looking at their hands as well.

“A strong reaction and quick recovery is healthy because we want our bodies to be ready for action when something goes wrong and then easily return to normal,” Bush said. “Babies whose mothers did not receive the intervention had a later response. They did not respond strongly until the threat passed, then they did not calm down easily once the threat past.”

Support for a bigenerational approach

The team intentionally chose mothers for their research who had high levels of stress due to their life situations, including financial difficulties and health problems, to ensure that the intervention worked for those who might benefit the most, Bush said.

“We hope this kind of data can encourage policy makers and advocates to say, hey, this was an inexpensive group intervention that reduced depression and stress for mothers, and may improve long-term well-being. term babies at the same time,” Bush said. .

These “two-generation” programs that cater to both caregivers and children are becoming increasingly popular in California. Last year’s state budget allocated $800 million to create a Medi-Cal dyadic patient care benefit, which will allow caregivers and babies to be treated together for behavioral health. Home visitation programs, in which pregnant women and new mothers receive visits from early childhood professionals who provide parenting guidance, are on the rise for a proposed $50 million increase in the state budget 2022-23.

“Pregnancy is an incredible window of opportunity for mothers and babies,” Bush said. “We could, as a society, save a lot of money while doing the right thing for the next generation.”

Authors: In addition to Drs. Noroña-Zhou and Bush, UCSF co-authors are Michael Coccia, MS, Elissa Epel, PhD, and Nancy E. Adler, of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and Karen Jones-Mason, JD, PhD. All are affiliated with the Center for Health and Community and the Weill Institutes for Neurosciences. Abbey Alkon, PhD, UCSF Department of Health Care Nursing, also co-author. Other authors and affiliations can be found in the article.

Funding: This study was supported by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute under award numbers U01 HL097973 and R01 HL116511, Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholars Program, Lisa and John Pritzker Family Fund, National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences -National Institutes of Health (UCSF-CTSI UL1 TR000004), the Tauber Family Foundation and the Lisa Stone Pritzker Family Foundation.

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