A short series of classes to help first-time parents learn to support each other through the stressful transition to parenthood has been found to also have a positive effect on birth outcomes.
About 10 years ago, Mark Feinberg, a research professor at the Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center for the Promotion of Human Development at Pennsylvania State, developed Family Foundations, a series of classes for expectant parents.
During the past 10 years, research has linked maternal prenatal stress, depression, and anxiety to poor birth outcomes. Feinberg and his team reasoned that the Family Foundations program’s effectiveness in improving maternal mental health might reduce poor birth outcomes for mothers at risk.
And that’s just what they found: For mothers who had moderate to high levels of financial stress, depression, or anxiety, participation in the program was linked to more optimal birth weight and/or shorter hospital stays after birth.
“We never thought that a class series meant to help the parents manage the stresses of parenthood would have an impact on birth outcomes as well,” said Feinberg.
In the new study, published in Maternal and Child Health Journal, 399 couples expecting their first child were randomly assigned to the Family Foundations prevention program or a control group. Those participating in the program were offered nine classes, five during pregnancy and four after birth. The control group received literature mailed to their homes.
“We found that the program buffered the negative influence of financial stress and depression on infant birth weight,” said Feinberg. “We also found consistent evidence across all three risk indicators measured — financial stress, depression, and anxiety — that duration of both mother and infant stay in the hospital was reduced for intervention couples compared to controls at higher levels of risk.”
Couples participated in a survey at the start of the study that helped the researchers assess the mothers’ levels of depression, anxiety, and financial strain, which was measured by assessing hardship due to lack of resources, a recent need to reduce the family’s standard of living, and difficulty living on current income.
“By reducing low birth weight and length of hospital stay for both mother and infant, these preventive strategies may lead to early savings in health care costs,” said Feinberg.
“This demonstrates the power of helping parents cooperate and support each other across the transition to parenthood. Better support and lower levels of conflict between parents have now been shown to benefit parents’ mental health, family relationships, and children’s well-being from birth through entry into school.”
In separate work, the researchers estimate that one dollar spent implementing the Family Foundations program saves society at least three to five dollars in costs due to mental health and behavioral problems. The program is being disseminated by the Department of Defense to military families, and the researchers are beginning to work with states and health systems to disseminate the program to other families as well.
Source: Penn State