New moms who have repetitive and self-focused negative thoughts have a harder time relating to their babies, according to a new study at the University of Exeter.
While it is common for new moms with young babies to worry about practical, personal or parenting problems, the study found that when self-focused thoughts become all-encompassing and overwhelming (e.g. Why don’t I feel happy?, Why can’t I cope as well as other moms?), mothers become less sensitive and responsive to their young children compared to those who are not stuck in this type of rumination cycle.
For the study, Drs. Michelle Tester-Jones and Heather O’Mahen, along with other psychologists from the University of Exeter, wanted to see whether moms who were both feeling low and preoccupied with their problems would have reduced quality of interactions with their infant during playtime, compared to control groups who were not feeling low or were not preoccupied.
They found that rumination — defined as having prolonged and repetitive thoughts about one’s self concerns and experiences — had the strongest impact on the interactions between a mother and baby, regardless of how depressed the mother was feeling.
Prior research has shown that poor early interactions between a mother and her baby can have an impact on the child’s future cognitive and social functioning and emotional well-being.
For the study, the researchers observed separately 79 mothers (39 with low mood and 40 in a control group) and babies aged three months to a year old. Half of the mothers were encouraged to think in a repetitive and negative way about a problem that was important to them. The rest of the moms were encouraged to think in a focused fashion about a problem that was important to them but that they had resolved.
Both before and after the rumination task, the researchers evaluated the mothers’ interactions with their infants. The mother-baby moments were filmed and then assessed for facial expression, speech, body language and actions to determine whether the moms’ behavior was sensitive, controlling or unresponsive. Moms who quickly and accurately picked up on their baby’s verbal and non-verbal cues and responded to their needs were assessed as being sensitive.
The researchers wrote that “rumination causally impairs maternal sensitivity” and that “all mothers, regardless of level of depressive symptoms, who were induced to ruminate demonstrated reduced maternal sensitivity to their infant. Mothers induced to ruminate had further reductions in sensitivity following a stressful task with their infant.”
Maternal sensitivity was affected in a number of ways, and in different ways for different moms. Some ruminating mothers had less eye contact with their baby and did not comfort the infant if they became distressed. Some also chose an activity that was not appropriate for the infant’s age, or spoke to their child in a flat or quieter tone.
“We hope these findings will be useful for health visitors and midwives when working with new mums, to help understand why mums might be finding interactions with their baby more difficult and support them in building a close and responsive relationship with their baby,” said Tester-Jones.
“The purpose of our study was to help identify thinking styles that might contribute to more or less sensitive parenting. The good news is that there are strategies to help manage rumination, and our research suggests that changing rumination can reduce potentially negative interactions with baby.”
Previous research on worry and rumination has shown that it is much more productive to focus on problems in a specific and goal-oriented way, such as asking when, where and how it happened and how you can fix it — for example, “How can I begin to address this?” rather than “Why does this keep happening to me?” Or “What is wrong with me?”
This more specific, focused way of thinking can improve problem-solving, help to keep difficulties in perspective, and improve mood.