The Benefits of Support Groups for New and Expecting Mothers and Their Babies
Antenatal and postnatal experiences affect the development of babies, as well as their mothers and families. What occurs while bringing a baby into the world affects how the baby will function and how healthy it will be physically and psychologically.
This is true also for the mother carrying the baby. Support groups for new and expecting mothers can be very beneficial by decreasing stress and reducing postpartum depression in mothers. By attending support groups, mothers are able to develop and strengthen relationships amongst their family members and their peers, improving social well-being which improves the overall health of themselves and their babies.
How Support Groups Work
For many expecting mothers or new first-time mothers, the change in daily life can be a heavy burden. Many women enjoy motherhood, however the journey can be a hard one. By being part of a support group, women are able to talk to their peers who are in similar situations. Support groups are a great option for women who wish to increase social interaction in their lives in order to get through the big chances in their lives that they are experiencing.
Groups That Meet in Person
Pregnancy support groups that meet in person often meet at least once a week. The group is usually led by a professional, such as a psychologist/therapist. The group will discuss topics that are of interest to the individual members. The topics vary weekly, but for expecting mothers, they can include matters such as changes experienced during pregnancy, relationships with family members and friends, body image, planning for the birth, coping strategies, mood, etc. Stressors and worries, such as the health of the child and decisions regarding raising the child, often persist even after birth. These support groups aim to promote bonding between the new baby and parents, improve maternal mental health, and measure infant development (Sawyer, et al., 2001). This type of support group helps to build a solid, close-knit support network for new and expecting mothers.
Pregnant women and new mothers can get together in various ways to support each other and find comfort in the new things that they are going through. There are a wide variety of online support tools for these women. They can provide support to women in many different experiences. They also offer answers from experts, anonymous submissions, and support whenever it is needed. Members can be part of discussions, read health blogs, and set goals. Through an online support group, new and expecting mothers can educate themselves and their peers on important topics. Blogs and discussions are a way that mothers can get in contact with each other. Bloggers often ask for help from the community, vent their feelings, share encouragement, and discuss their pregnancy journey.
Outcomes of Support Groups
Different types of health, including physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual health, for example, can be linked to one another and be affected by each other. For instance, if a woman is experiencing chronic physical pain, she may become depressed; the opposite may also occur. In just the same way, a mother’s health, whichever type that may be, can impact her baby’s health. Babies depend on their mother, whether it be during prenatal development, during birth, or far into childhood.
Physical health can be affected by psychological health just as psychological health can be affected by physical health. Negative psychological health symptoms can determine physical health symptoms (Witte, Hackman, Boleigh, & Mugoya, 2015). One study from 2014 (Stanton & Campbell) revealed that people who are more anxious are generally unhealthy mentally and physically. They reported, “more bodily pain, more medical symptoms, and impaired daily functioning” (Stanton & Campbell, 2014).
Women with a history of mental health problems are at a greater risk for depression and anxiety during pregnancy and after birth (Henderson & Redshaw, 2013). Women with no previous mental health issues also face many stressors while pregnant or after giving birth.
With the help of support groups, anxiety and stress can be managed and reduced. According to an experiment conducted by Sturgis (2014), social support is the greatest resource for reducing stress during pregnancy. Social support can act as a resource for women to help them cope and adapt to the stress in their lives (Cohen & Wills, 1985). Support groups are able to help women reduce stress by increasing social interaction. Increasing social interaction in a woman’s life gives her a support network and a place to talk about struggles, successes, her journey, and anything else. She can feel understood by people in the same situation. Women who were part of support groups to improve psychological health reported better general health, including physical health, 5 weeks after delivery when compared to women who were not part of a support group (Kemp, et al., 2013). There is a strong correlation between social interaction and reduced stress.
Support groups for pregnant women or new mothers can also improve relationships in families. It has been found that unresolved anxieties can harm relationships between parents (Spillman, 1999). By attending a support group, women are able to work through any anxieties that may come along with being pregnant or raising a child, allowing couples to get along and work through the difficulties they can be experiencing. Often times, if someone in a relationship is unhealthy or not happy due to stress, this can cause the relationship to suffer. The other person may start to feel the same ways. When women are healthier and happier, as they tend to be when part of support groups, this emotion can be transferred and shared with her partner. When both are not feeling as stressed, they can make decisions more easily and tend to get along better.
Through support groups, women can prevent and treat postpartum depression (PPD). PPD is depression in women after childbirth. Due to the high amounts of hormones associated with pregnancy, such as estrogen and progesterone, as well as stress, feelings of overwhelm, and lack of sleep, many women experience a wide array of emotions during this time in their lives. Depression is one that is commonly identified. It can arise within the first few days following labor and can last for weeks.
A study conducted in 2015 (Kao, Johnson, Todorova, & Zlotnick,) successfully used a group interpersonal psychotherapy intervention to prevent PPD in women by establishing social support and improving interpersonal skills. Women with high depressive symptoms during pregnancy benefit from support group programs to reduce depression during the postpartum period. Social interaction is proven to reduce symptoms of PPD. A study in which nurse home visits were used as treatment for PPD showed that the presence of the nurse, empathetic listening, focused attention and self-reflection contributed to improvements (Sawyer, et. Al, 2001).
A Mother’s Health Affects Her Baby’s Health
A mother’s overall health greatly impacts the health of her child due to environmental factors. Stress during pregnancy has been known to increase a woman’s chances of miscarriage. While pregnant, highly anxious mothers are found to negatively affect brain development in fetuses. These women negatively affect the cognitive function of their children. When tested during adolescence, children of highly anxious pregnant women showed more signs of ADHD, reacting impulsively, and scored lower than children of less anxious pregnant women (Van den Bergh, et al., 2005).
Some may argue that genetics have more to do with prenatal and postnatal development than environmental factors do, however. This is known as the nature vs nurture debate and has been intensely studied over the past century. It relates to the importance of genetic predisposition and environmental factors leading to development in humans. Scientists have long been unsure of which is more significantly effecting certain traits and characteristics, and this is very important in determining how to prevent and treat many disorders and syndromes.
Those who argue that genetics are more strongly correlated to development reason that ADHD symptoms seen in children are associated to genes which can be inherited, linking stressful mothers to the passing-on of ADHD genes. This is true, to an extent. Someone can be more predisposed to having ADHD symptoms than someone else if they have the associated genes. However, this is merely a predisposition, and it is a very complicated inheritance that is much more complicated than just having the genes and having the disorder. Environmental factors work to shape a person just as much, in many instances, as genetics do. So saying that ADHD, and many other various health problems, seen in children are simply genetic would be unreasonable.
A study of the link between child mental health and prenatal influences, specifically stress and depression in the mother, concluded that early childhood mental health is greatly impacted by prenatal influences. The study went on to conclude that, “interventions targeting adverse prenatal, perinatal and postnatal influences can be expected to improve mental health outcomes for children in the early years” (Robinson, et. Al, 2013). Environmental factors during early development have a strong influence on health later in life.
Other factors of a child’s environment can act to shape them as well. How children are treated by their parents can affect how they are able to function with and treat others down the road. Women with PPD commonly have trouble bonding with their babies, which can lead to problems in mother-child relationships, as well as child-peer relationships. This is why most hospitals allow mothers and their babies as much time as possible together in those first moments after birth. According to Mary Beth Steinfeld, M.D., who specializes in pediatric child development and behavior, when babies bond with their parents in their few year of life, and are highly comforted tend to feel more secure and confident as they grow into toddlers and young children (2015). After being in a support group, most women report feeling more confident and better able to care for their babies after birth (Kemp, et al., 2013). When women are healthier overall, their babies are better taken care of and their overall health is enhanced as well.
Even during birth, a mother’s health will impact that of her child’s. According to one study, mothers who were part of support groups had a higher rate of unassisted vaginal births than the general population due to the decreased stress the women experienced at the time of birth (Kemp, et al., 2013). Stress during a pregnancy can also cause premature delivery, which affects the baby’s developmental progress since it was not able to mature in the womb long enough, which can increase the risk of birth defects. Stress on the mother during birth can bring about health complications during delivery, as it puts the baby under stress as well.
Whether women are pregnant or have recently given birth for the first time, support groups help mothers to develop and strengthen relationships amongst their family members and their peers which improves social well-being, and improves the overall health of themselves and their babies. Support groups have been found to help reduce stress and symptoms of postpartum depression (PPD) due to the social interaction available in the groups. Talking with peers who share many of the same feelings can promote and improve social well-being. Social well-being, a psychological component of health, improves the overall health of the mother by affecting her physically as well, which can benefit the baby as it develops in the womb, grows after it is born, and is taken care of daily.
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Van de Bergh, B. H., Mennes, M., Oosterlaan, J., Stevens, V., Stiers, P., Marcoen, A., & Lagae, L. (2005) High antenatal maternal anxiety is related to impulsivity during performance on cognitive tasks in 14- and 15-year-olds. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, Vol 29(2), pp. 259-269.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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© 2016 Blair Nieman