Mental Podcast Show

A new study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders looked at the social and cognitive vulnerability to COVID-19-related stress in pregnancy.

“We were interested to find out whether being pregnant during the pandemic was associated with postpartum mental wellbeing of the mothers and their babies,” study author Susanne Schweizer told us. “In particular, we were interested whether the experiencing stress related to the pandemic (including, stressors such as economic and health-related worries) would be associated with more postpartum depression and anxiety in the mothers and poorer affect in the children.”

Based on previous research on the role of antenatal stress in mother and infant outcomes, the research team predicted that there would be a positive relationship between the amount of pandemic-related stress experienced by the mothers and their and their infants’ postpartum mental health outcomes.

Attention to mental health in the peripartum period is largely neglected. Pregnancy is already a stressful time in a woman’s life. Suddenly their choices and circumstances do not only affect their own wellbeing but also that of their unborn child. 

“During the pandemic, especially in the early stages when we measured stress in these individuals, health advice for the population in general and pregnant women in particular kept changing as well as social restrictions that impacted birthing and antenatal as well as postpartum care arrangements,” Schweizer told us. “We immediately worried that COVID-19-related stress might particularly negatively impact the mental health of pregnant individuals.”

The research team measured mental health (i.e., symptoms of depression and anxiety) and COVID-19-related stress during pregnancy as part of a large three wave observational cohort survey the COVID-19 Risks Across the Lifespan (CORAL) study. They then we measured mental health, postpartum distress and infant mood and behaviour again at a fourth assessment on average 17 months later.

The researchers showed that mothers who reported more COVID-19-related stress during pregnancy reported more mental health problems and postpartum distress at the follow-up assessment, and these results held even when they controlled for the mental health problems they reported at the initial measurement. They also showed that the infants reported more negative mood as a function of the stress experienced by the mothers during pregnancy.

“What surprised me was that the association could be observed such a long time out from the initial assessment,” Schweizer told us. “I think it’s critical that we start prioritizing maternal mental health more as part of standard antenatal care during pandemics and beyond.”

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