Depressed mothers benefit from interaction therapy already during pregnancy

The groundwork for parent–infant interaction is laid in pregnancy. A recently published study indicates that a preventive model of treatment supports the forthcoming parenthood and the mother's interaction with the baby.

During pregnancy, the mother's mood often drops. According to estimates, as many as 20% of pregnant women suffer from mild or moderate depressive symptoms. Not everyone is capable of feeling happy or pleased about the soon-to-arrive baby. Pregnancy is associated with a mixture of emotions, fear, concern and anxiety among them. Such symptoms are also common after giving birth.

“As your mood gets lower, your personal take on becoming a parent and the baby can easily become negative. Already in pregnancy, the mother’s affective symptoms have an effect on the relationship between mother and infant,” says Saara Salo, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki.

Depressive moods in the mother also pose a risk to the baby. However, treating the depressive symptoms does not by itself improve the mother–infant relationship.

In her study, Salo examined the effects of a new preventive intervention model in Finland. The model has been specifically designed to support future parenthood and the mother’s interaction with the baby: to engender positive emotions and thoughts about the transition to parenthood and the infant. The model is implemented by enrolling mothers in a Nurture and Play (NaP) group.

Participation in the intervention group reduced depressive symptoms

Salo investigated the effect of the NaP group on expectant mothers by monitoring 45 women suffering from depressive symptoms during pregnancy in a randomised control trial setting. Common to all study subjects was the difficulty of forming an attachment to the baby during pregnancy and thinking about their parenthood.

“Many women felt lonely and described instances of insufficient care experienced in their own early care relationships,” Salo says.

Participation in the intervention group was found to clearly improve the mother’s ability to understand the infant’s emotional needs and think deeply about their child and parenthood by the time the child turned one. The mothers’ depressive symptoms also decreased.

Touching and singing develop the maternal emotional connection to the baby

The intervention groups meet roughly a dozen times, starting during pregnancy and carrying on until the baby is approximately seven months old. Each group includes four or five mothers.

In the group, the mothers’ developing emotional connection to the infant is supported, for example, through body awareness activities, touching, singing and interactive playing. The mothers’ ability to explore motherhood is supported with exercises that encourage them to get interested in the uniqueness of their baby.

“The relationship that is formed during pregnancy makes it possible to feel familiar with the baby after birth, making it easier for the parent to respond to his or her signals and needs,” says Salo.

The study was published in the Primary Health Care Research & Development journal.

Information about the publication

Salo SJ, Flykt M, Mäkelä J, Biringen Z, Kalland M, Pajulo M, Punamäki RL. (2019) The effectiveness of Nurture and Play: a mentalisation-based parenting group intervention for prenatally depressed mothers. Primary Health Care Research & Development 20 (e157): 1–11. doi: 10.1017/ S1463423619000914

Families First project at the University of Helsinki