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Four projects improving mental health for new mothers

This Mother’s Day we look at four brilliant projects aiming to understand and improve mental health for new mothers.

Becoming a mother is a hugely exciting time. It is a major transition in life, and comes with a whole new identity. It also comes bundled up with intense feelings. Joy, overwhelming love, fierce protectiveness and constant worry are just a few. This barrage of new emotions, together with sleep deprivation, hormone changes and isolation can leave some at risk of mental health issues. But as with other mental health conditions, there is help and support available. And research is leading the way to new, more effective treatments for those who are struggling.

The statistics

Its estimated that 10% of pregnant women and 13% of those who have just given birth experience a mental health condition. The most common is postnatal depression. New mums are also at risk of anxiety disorders and more rarely, PTSD or post-partum psychosis.

The good news is that there are treatments for maternal mental health conditions. Support is available and the vast majority of people recover. And yet, there is still much more we can do to make sure every mother gets the support they need. 

Research to prevent problems, make treatments better and improve access in maternal mental health is paving the way so more women can receive the help they deserve. 

Preparing for labour to reduce anxiety 

Anxiety during pregnancy can affect the development of babies and children. It can also mean that postnatal depression is more likely. Worries about labour and giving birth are key factors in antenatal anxiety.

A study at the University of Nottingham is aiming to better prepare women for labour. The researchers hope that this will reduce anxiety during pregnancy and improve the experience of labour and birth.

Preparing for labour, usually in an antenatal class, is a way to address concerns and support emotional wellbeing. But there are challenges to providing these - classes don’t always meet a families needs and there are disparities in the service. Also, there is limited evidence about how effective antenatal education is.  

The researchers will be surveying pregnant women, new mothers and fathers to find out their needs, expectations and preferences when it comes to antenatal support.  They will look at how preparations for labour contribute to what happens next. The team will also explore the impact of a new resource pack, as well as surveying midwives and other healthcare professionals. This data offer vital insights to create better interventions. 

Self help for anxiety

Researchers at City, University of London are testing a new web-based programme. The programme, called What Am I Worried About, is for women who experience anxiety after childbirth. During the programme, women learn about anxiety and worries experienced by other mothers and practice activities to overcome those.

It is based on a self-help booklet that uses cognitive-behavioural and mindfulness principles. Originally developed in Australia, the booklet showed promise. It was safe and stigma-free. Most importantly, research showed it may also help reduce anxiety. Now the UK researchers are testing if an internet version is both feasible and effective here.


Could exercise be used to help women with postnatal depression? This is the question researchers at Cardiff University looked at.

They worked with women diagnosed with postnatal depression in the first six months after giving birth. The women taking part in the study were randomly put into two groups. The first received care as usual. The second had four consultations with an exercise coach who supported them to take part in exercise. The results were positive. Six months later, more women in the group who exercised had recovered.

This research adds to the growing evidence of the benefits of exercise. A recent ‘meta review’ combined the results from all similar studies around the world. The meta review concludes that group exercise, exercise chosen by the new mother and exercise together with other treatments are all effective.

Understanding the causes - there's an app for that

We don’t yet fully understand the causes for postnatal depression or postpartum psychosis. This information is vital in order to develop better treatments. Better understanding of the causes could also predict who might be at risk and how the conditions could be prevented. It’s likely that our genes hold some of those clues.

An international study has developed an app to collect data from women who have recently given birth. The app asks questions about sadness, anxiety or panic after childbirth. Women with high scores are invited to submit DNA and are sent a kit to donate their saliva. DNA is analysed and compared to the thousands of others taking part. It's likely that the genetics will be complex, with no single gene having a big effect. But by analysing so much data, the researchers hope to spot any patterns that hint how genes may be involved.

The future

It's crucial that we continue to strive for better support for mothers, helping millions of women and their families worldwide. And through prioritising research, we can make this a reality. 

Last updated: 9 March 2018

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