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  • Writer's pictureChristi Boujikian

THE IMPACTS OF MATERNAL MENTAL HEALTH ON YOUR BABY'S DEVELOPMENT

After the birth of my second child, I suffered severely from postpartum depression. Unfortunately, there isn’t any question as to why I suffered. My baby could hardly feed from breast or bottle. I was trying to feed her almost 24-hours a day because I felt I had to in order to make sure my baby was gaining weight. If she wasn’t feeding, she was usually crying ---- it was an Olympic task just trying to calm her enough to sleep. She would sleep in amounts that weren’t adequate for her age and we would start the whole cycle over again – try to feed, cry, try to settle.


MATERNAL MENTAL HEALTH CONDITIONS

I seriously wondered about my own child’s brain development from this lack of sleep as my own mental health continued to deteriorate. I frequently called our pediatrician to ask her about what I could do. She didn’t have much for me besides that she would grow out of it.


Days turned into weeks turned into months. "She should have grown out of it by now", according to the pediatrician. When my baby didn’t grow out of it, the pediatrician’s recommendation was to sleep train and suggested that "being colicky was her part of her personality". And also, to wait a bit longer!


THE IMPACT OF LOW NURTURE CULTURE ON MATERNAL MENTAL HEALTH


Even more unfortunate is that this sort of thing is quite common. It is estimated that 1 in 5 mothers are impacted by mental health conditions.


Maternal mental health conditions are the MOST COMMON complication of pregnancy and birth affecting 800,000 families in the US each year. - Maternal Mental Health Leadership Alliance

While there are many increased risk factors that are important to be aware of, for myself and many others, families are being dismissed by healthcare providers with phrases like:

  • They will grow out of it.”

  • That’s normal.

  • Let’s wait and see.


This creates not only a barrier to accessing care for any issues that may be treated with early intervention, but also puts families at an increased risk of mental health conditions.

MATERNAL MENTAL HEALTH LEADERSHIP ALLIANCE

According to the Maternal Mental Health Leadership Alliance, some of the most common barriers to accessing care:

  • Feelings of shame, stigma, guilt

  • Expense and/or lack of access to healthcare

  • Social biases in the healthcare system

  • Logistical challenges, such as lack of transportation or childcare

  • Distrust of the healthcare system

  • Fear that child protective services or immigration agencies will become involved

  • Fear of being considered a “bad mom

  • Racial, cultural, and religious beliefs


Individuals at an increased risk for maternal mental health conditions:

  • Individuals with personal or family history of mental illness

  • Individuals of color

  • Individuals who live in low-income neighborhoods

  • Military service-members and their spouses

  • Women veterans

  • Immigrant parents

  • Parents with a baby in the neonatal intensive care unit

  • Individuals who lack social support, especially from their partner

  • Individuals who have experienced birth trauma or previous sexual trauma in their lifetime


Additionally, in what Dr. Greer Kirshenbaum calls the “low nurture culture”, many parents’ expectations to what an infant will be like to care for do not match with what an infant’s needs are; and, more importantly, our society is not set up in a way to support families through this.


Low nurture cultures lack support or acknowledgement of the rights and needs of parents and babies. They pressure parents to abandon their neurobiology and become low nurturers. - The Nurture Revolution, Dr. Greer Kirshenbaum

My pediatrician recommending sleep training would be a perfect example of this, and I wish I could say that this wasn’t a common recommendation for pediatricians in the US.


Parents are struggling to cope with their child’s symptoms relating to oral motor dysfunction and airway development like colic, reflux, fussiness, GI upset, feeding issues, etc. or they have found a way to put a band-aid on it until these symptoms pop up in new ways. For example, kids with oral dysfunction will have inadequate airway development and these symptoms will look like:

  • open mouth breathing

  • snoring

  • crowded or crooked teeth

  • poor sleep quality

  • restless sleep

  • inability to focus

  • bedwetting past appropriate age (late stage bedwetting)

  • teeth grinding


Kids may be able to “survive” these symptoms but they certainly aren’t thriving! They don’t grow out of symptoms, but simply grow into new ones.



CLOSING THE GAP ON INFANT SLEEP AND AIRWAY HEALTH AND MATERNAL SUPPORT


Now we can see we are caught in quite a vicious cycle as we continue to “wait and see” – parents continue to struggle, and this is passed on to our children in multiple ways. Firstly, our children need to co-regulate with us so doing all we can to support parents is the best way to set up a strong foundation for resilient kids. Next, if kids aren’t able to receive early intervention for issues relating to airway health & development, they will also be at an increased risk of suffering from mental health conditions as their sleep AND breathing will be compromised.


Maternal Mental Health conditions, steps to wellness

Even if parents are presenting what they believe are issues but are actually biologically normal or in-line with physiological health, healthcare providers should be able to give parents resources to understand and how to navigate these situations. But families should not be offered to “wait and see” if anything is suboptimal, if kids are managing symptoms and just getting by.


Assessing an infant’s quality of life on weight gain alone is not enough. Prescribing reflux medications without functional feeding evaluations is not enough. Giving ADHD medication without assessing sleep quality is not enough. Giving a mouthguard for teeth grinding is not enough. The list goes on.


As prevalent as maternal mental health conditions are, we are in the midst of a mental health crisis.


Mental health struggles are prevalent, growing and difficult to treat. Many of our struggles begin in childhood or adolescence, and at least one out of every five adults in the US and Canada experiences poor mental health at any time. Over a lifetime, it’s estimated that 50-80% of individuals experience a period of poor mental health. - The Nurture Revolution, Dr. Greer Kirshenbaum

All of the problems are too much to address in this little blog especially access to care, but here, we can see the framework and start to take small steps on all the work that needs to be done.


We want thriving kids who will grow into thriving adults!



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