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Mom’s stress impacts her view of child’s behavior

StressJan 16, 06

Mothers with a history of prenatal drug use who are stressed out by parenting are known to view their babies as more reactive, and as having a more difficult temperament. Now, a new study shows that this is as true for stressed-out moms with no history of drug use.

The findings suggest that it is possible to help women cope better with their parenting role by focusing on their individual characteristics, “and not on whether they used drugs before or after pregnancy,” according to study author Dr. Stephen J. Sheinkopf, of Brown Medical School in Rhode Island.

“If mothers are highly stressed as parents, this will affect the ways that they think about and interact with their babies,” Sheinkopf, also of Rhode Island’s Bradley Hospital, told Reuters Health. “This can have long term effects on how children develop and how families function,” he added.

Using data from the Maternal Lifestyle Study, a long-term study of prenatal drug exposures, Sheinkopf and his colleagues investigated the interactions between a mother’s characteristics and her infant’s behavior.

For example, they looked at whether a mother’s history of substance abuse, parenting stress, mental problems or other characteristics would impact the association between her infant’s behavior shortly after birth and her ratings of the infant’s temperament at 4 months old. The study involved 984 children, 394 of whom had been exposed to cocaine in the womb, who were in the care of their biological mothers. Such infants are known to be at risk of developmental problems.

As the researchers report in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology, an infant’s behavior at 1 month of age predicted both the mother’s ratings of the infant’s temperament at 4 months and the mother’s level of parenting stress. This was true whether or not the infants were exposed to cocaine in utero, Sheinkopf and his team note.

In particular, extreme reactivity among young infants, as determined by an objective assessment of factors as varied as the infant’s posture, movement, irritability, and consolability, predicted higher ratings of the infant’s reactivity a few months later by their mothers. This was primarily true for mothers who reported higher levels of parenting-related stress, however, the researchers found.

“This is saying moms who are exposed to a lot of stress in parenting may be sensitive to their child’s behavior in a way that makes them view their child as more difficult, more reactive,” Sheinkopf said.

“Because we now know that this effect is true both for mothers with and without a history of drug use, this supports our view that we can help mothers with drug use problems be happier and more effective parents,” the researcher explained.

Sheinkopf added that “though this is not a treatment study, it would suggest that moms should seek out help and utilize help out there to be happy, successful, well-adjusted parents.”

SOURCE: Journal of Pediatric Psychology, January/February 2006.

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