Prenatal mindfulness program improves infant stress response – ScienceDaily

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

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

“There’s really good evidence that maternal stress during pregnancy increases the risk of health problems in children,” said Noroña-Zhou, PhD, a clinical psychologist with UCSF’s Center for Health and Community. “But we still don’t have a good understanding of how this process unfolds and what biological mechanisms underlie it, or whether we can mitigate the effects of stress on negative health outcomes.”

The researchers studied 135 mother-child dyads from low-income, racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds who experienced high levels of stress in their lives. Infants whose mothers completed an eight-week mindfulness-based program recovered from stressful interactions more quickly and exhibited stronger self-soothing behaviors than those who did not.

The ability to recover from stress is associated with better health outcomes later in life, said Nicki Bush, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at UCSF’s Weill Institute for Neurosciences and senior author of the study.

“There has been so little research on what we can do on the positive lane; it was mostly about showing the negative effects of prenatal stress,” Bush said. “This is the next frontier – interventions for mothers that have positive effects on mother and baby.”

Quick recovery from a stressful event

The study follows a 2019 study showing that the same mindfulness intervention reduces stress and depression in mothers and improves their glucose tolerance and physical activity.

To elicit the infants’ stress response, mothers were trained in the “silent face paradigm,” in which the mothers played with their infants for two minutes, then maintained a completely neutral facial expression for two minutes, ignoring the babies’ requests for attention. They repeated the play-ignore cycle and ended up 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-digestion responses — during exercise. Trained observers, unaware of treatment status, also coded the infants’ behavioral responses.

The fight-or-flight response of babies whose mothers had undergone the mindfulness program was more acute when ignored by their mothers and also resolved more quickly after the stressor resolved than babies in the control group. The babies in the treatment group also exhibited more self-soothing behaviors, like thumb-sucking and looking at their hands.

“A strong response and a speedy recovery are healthy because we want our bodies to be ready to go when something is wrong and then easily go back to normal,” Bush said. “The babies whose mothers did not receive the intervention responded more slowly. They didn’t react strongly until the threat passed, and then didn’t calm down easily after the threat passed.”

Support for a two-generation approach

The team deliberately selected mothers for their research who were experiencing high levels of stress due to their living conditions, including financial burdens and health challenges, to ensure the intervention worked for those who could benefit most, Bush said.

“We hope this kind of data can encourage decision-makers and advocates to say, hey, this was a low-cost, group-based intervention that reduces maternal depression and stress while improving babies’ long-term well-being,” Bush said.

Such “two-generation” programs, which cater to caregivers and children simultaneously, are becoming increasingly popular in California. Last year’s state budget allocated $800 million to create a dyadic care benefit for Medi-Cal patients, allowing caregivers and babies to treat behavioral health needs together. Home visiting programs, where pregnant and new mothers receive visits from early childhood professionals who provide parenting counseling, are to receive a $50 million boost in the 2022-23 state budget.

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

Authors: In addition to Dr. Noroña-Zhou and Bush, UCSF Co-authors are Michael Coccia, MS, Elissa Epel, PhD, and Nancy E. Adler, from 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. See publication for additional authors and affiliations.

Financing: This study was supported by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute under grant numbers U01 HL097973 and R01 HL116511, the Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholars Program, the Lisa and John Pritzker Family Fund, and the 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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