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Prenatal wellness care improves further life of mothers

Wellness care, especially psychological, during pregnancy has a positive effect on the mental state of women after pregnancy

Women after a simple prenatal intervention were half as likely to be depressed eight years later compared to women who received standard care. This is according to a new study from the University of California, San Francisco, published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.

It is one of the first studies to look at outcomes so far into the future.

What the scientists studied

The pregnant women in the study participated in group wellness classes that met weekly for eight weeks.

Led by Elissa Epel, PhD, a UCSF professor of psychiatry and her team, groups of eight to ten pregnant women met for two hours a week. They performed mindfulness-based stress reduction exercises. Special attention was paid to nutrition, breathing and physical activity. The women also had two telephone sessions and a group postpartum “booster” session with their babies.

Wellness care is not just for white women

According to senior study author Niki Bush, historically, most studies of prenatal depression have included mostly white women, but not this one.

Our participants were lower-income, racially and ethnically diverse women. They are systemically exposed to factors that put them at risk for depression, such as racism and economic hardship. Also, the final years of the study were during the COVID-19 pandemic, when depression rates were higher for everyone, and the burden placed on communities of color was even greater. Even so, the treatment effects held up.

Nicki Bush, PhD, professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences

In the study, 162 women were assigned to either the intervention group or the standard care group. The women’s depression symptoms were assessed using the Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9) before, after, and at 1, 2, 3-4, 5, 6, and 8 years.

How wellness care affected women

Both groups of women had similar symptoms of depression before exercise. Only 12% of those who were part of the wellness class reported moderate or severe depressive symptoms after eight years, compared to 25% of women who received standard care.

Mindfulness practice is known to help alleviate stress in many situations and can meaningfully affect coping and health. It seems here that it was particularly powerful during pregnancy, with enduring effects. Our sense is that the community connections and social support involved with the (wellness class) group were therapeutic as well.

Nicki Bush, PhD, professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences

Next steps for the scientists

The researchers are now collecting additional data to better understand how the intervention had such a long-term effect. Potential mechanisms include long-term changes in the ability to cope with stress, healthy eating and exercise.

A previous study on the same group of women found that the intervention also reduced the short-term risk of depression and diabetes and supported healthier stress responses in their children.

This dramatic demonstration of both short-term reduction of depressive symptoms and long-term prevention of more severe maternal depression, even during the pandemic, is remarkable, even to us researchers. It’s likely that the effects of increased stress resilience in these women is having pervasive effects on their own health and their children.

Elissa Epel, PhD, a UCSF professor of psychiatry

Read about the best methods and ways to preserve your mental health and counteract stress in our article.

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