Emotional Distress in Mothers Linked to Infant Health

Emotional distress in a pregnant mother is a health hazard for both the mother and the unborn child. This study is based on data from 49,425 pregnant mothers regarding 37 predictors of emotional distress. The results revealed that relationship satisfaction protected women from emotional distress. It also found that being a single mother, having work-related stress and having symptoms of physical illness are all risk factors that increase emotional distress during pregnancy. These findings could be important in the formation of public health policies.

Pregnancy involves not just the mother, but also the partner and extended family. Psychosocial support from these people is critical for protection against stress during pregnancy. Anxiety and depression in the mother can lead to preterm delivery and low infant birth weight, putting the life of the newborn in danger. Postpartum depression is known to be prevalent, but mothers are at equal risk of antenatal depression. Therefore, recognizing risk factors, as well as protective factors affecting maternal emotional distress, is clinically important and also crucial in public health policy making. This study focused on whether high relationship satisfaction provides protection against acute effects of stressful happenings in Norwegian pregnant women.

* This study involved 49,425 women from the Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study (MoBa) who participated by answering different questionnaires.
* The questionnaires tested their anxiety, depression, and relationship satisfaction levels at the 17th and 13th weeks of pregnancy; as well as at 6, 18 and 36 months postpartum.
* Other questionnaires tested the family support system, presence of symptoms of physical diseases, stressors like frequent moving, physical violence, and sexual pressure or violence.
* Each participant’s use of alcohol was also documented by a separate questionnaire.

* A significant unique effect on maternal emotional distress was seen in 26 of the 37 predictors tested. Being a single mother was significantly associated with a high likelihood of depression. The mean correlation between being a single mother and depression was 6.5 on a scale of 1 to 12.
* Dissatisfaction with a relationship had the most visible impact on maternal emotional distress. The mean correlation between these two entities was 5.29 on a scale of 1 to 6.
* Work stress was also correlated to emotional distress; the correlation was 5.51 on a scale of 1 to 9.
* Presence of physical disease either prior to or during pregnancy negatively affected maternal emotional distress during pregnancy.

Shortcomings/Next steps
This is a study based on self-report responses by participants to a questionnaire. It might not reflect the true status of an individual, as self-reports can be biased. Such correlation studies do not substantiate the counter statement of a hypothesis. For example, in this study it was found that a good partner relationship possibly protects against poor mental health. The reverse statement, that poor mental health negatively affects partner satisfaction, cannot be verified by the present study design. Certain groups were also under-represented in the study sample, and the average education level of participants was somewhat higher than that of the general population.

Emotional distress during pregnancy affects the health of both the pregnant mother as well as the fetus. This study found that relationship satisfaction had the strongest effect on emotional distress. Satisfaction with interpersonal relationships not only supported a pregnant mother but protected against emotional distress, too. Relationship satisfaction acts as a buffer for some risk factors, like work stress, dissatisfaction at work, and frequent moving. A surprising finding was that dissatisfaction at work and work stress were the second and fourth strongest predictors of emotional distress during pregnancy. The study indicates that pregnant women who experience several risk factors and also the protection offered by a good partner relationship need to be watched for preventing maternal emotional distress.

For More Information:
Partner Relationship Satisfaction and Maternal Emotional Distress in Early Pregnancy
Publication Journal: BMC Public Health, March 2011
By Gun-Mette B. Røsand; Kari Slinning; Norwegian Institute of Public Health, Oslo, Norway, and the National Network for Infant Mental Health, Centre for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Eastern and Southern Norway

*FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.


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