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New study- the way moms-to-be deal with stress may guide baby’s development


Rochester Hills, Mich., –How a mother is functioning psychologically even before her baby is born influences the baby's development, but interventions can be taken during pregnancy to help prepare her for parenting and promote positive mother-infant relationships at the earliest point possible.

More details of these discoveries from a collaborative study led by a psychologist with the Wayne State University Physician Group will be published in an upcoming issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry. (An in-press version is available online here).

John Porcerelli, Ph.D., A.B.P.P., a WSU professor of Family Medicine and Public Health Sciences, is the principal investigator and lead author of “Defense mechanisms of pregnant mothers predict attachment security, social-emotional competence, and behavior problems in their toddlers.”

“Our study demonstrates that the mental life of mothers during pregnancy – particularly the way they automatically, unconsciously, cope with stressors – has an impact on the mother-child attachment relationship with their toddlers,” he said.

Porcerelli is board certified in clinical psychology and clinical health psychology and is director of behavioral medicine at the Wayne State University Family Medicine Residency Program at Crittenton Hospital in Rochester Hills, Mich.  

 “Pregnancy and caring for young children is a stressful process and it is normal and typical to feel some anxiety or low mood during this time. We encourage mothers who are struggling to reach out to someone they trust and share their feelings about the challenges of parenting and seek professional help if needed — a pediatrician, an infant mental health provider, and/or their physician,” said co-study author Alissa Huth-Bocks.

Struggling parents can develop healthier defenses through regular social contacts with supportive family and friends, support groups and various psychological interventions that encourage thoughtful exploration of parenting. Social support can come from a variety of places and isn't always from a spouse or the father, he said.

His lab was charged with coding and analyzing data from 84 interviews with pregnant mothers from Washtenaw County’s Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti area who were recruited through posters at public locations and at agencies serving low-income families.

Based on his clinical experience with parents, Porcerelli was aware of how much healthy defenses contributed to better parent-child attachment. “I was just surprised at the strength of the results, especially in a sample with such high stress,” he said.

A healthy defense in response to a toddler’s meltdown would be the use of humor for example. A mother “may initially feel annoyed but puts her feeling side, telling her friend jokingly, ‘I knew this would be an easy afternoon,’ then picks the child off of the floor and holds him on her lap and soothes him,” he said. The soothing is an example of the healthy defense of altruism.

Examples of unhealthy defenses are as follows: “If the mother responds to the toddler by saying, ‘I know you want to ruin my day,’ – projection – and yells at the toddler saying, ‘You are never a good boy,’ – splitting – then begins spanking him – acting out. Or the mother could turn up the volume on the television and ignore the child – passive aggression – thus increasing the child’s frustration,” Porcerelli said. “At times it was startling to see how distorted mothers’ perceptions of their child’s behavior could be when using low-level, less mature, defense mechanisms. I was equally surprised how well some mothers, with healthy defenses, functioned in the face of inordinate stress. Overall, there is quite a bit of variability about how stressed mothers are preparing for parenthood and subsequently providing care to their toddlers.”

Dr. Porcerelli’s team is in the process of coding and analyzing the same types of interviews with mothers when their children are 2 years old. “This will help us understand the stability and change of defense mechanisms over time, and perhaps understand the effects of stress on changes in defenses,” he said.

About Wayne State University Physician Group

Wayne State University Physician Groupis the one of the largest nonprofit multi-specialty physician practice groups in southeast Michigan, with more than 2,000 affiliated physicians providing primary and specialty care. As faculty members at the Wayne State University School of Medicine, WSUPG doctors are at the forefront of medical science. To make an appointment at one of more than 180 locations, call 877-WSU-DOCS (877-978-3627) or visit www.upgdocs.org. Connect with WSUPG at www.facebook.com/WSUPGDocsor follow @WSUPGDocson Twitter.


About Wayne State University, www.wayne.edu

Wayne State University is a premier urban research institution offering more than 400 academic programs through 13 schools and colleges to nearly 32,000 students. Its School of Medicine educates more than 1,000 medical students in Midtown Detroit. In addition to undergraduate medical education, the school offers master’s degree, Ph.D. and M.D.-Ph.D. programs in 14 areas of basic science to about 400 students annually.

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