Darius Tandon: Careful intervention helps mothers and babies

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By Darius Tandon, Guest Columnist

Few relationships are more important than the one between a mother and her child.

Unfortunately, far too many children grow up without a strong attachment with their mothers. In many cases, a root cause of the poor parent-child relationship may be the compromised mental health of a new mother.

One in five women in the United States — across race, ethnicity or income levels — experiences postpartum depression. Even more women experience high levels of stress, caused by factors such as lack of social support or sleep deprivation.

Postpartum depression can have profound effects on new mothers, who may experience feelings of sadness, hopelessness, loss of interest in people and activities that were once enjoyable, and a lack of connection with their new baby.

Because babies learn through social interaction and connection, there can be a significant negative impact on their physical, emotional, cognitive and social development throughout childhood if they are living with a depressed mother.

For more than a decade, I have worked closely with home-visiting programs that serve low-income pregnant women and new mothers. Home visitors provide information, support and resources to help prepare women for the birth of their child and their parenting responsibilities.

I have seen the power of home-visiting programs in many areas, such as building the confidence of mothers to promote their child's development and linking women and babies with prenatal and pediatric care to promote healthy lifestyle habits and important preventive care such as immunizations and early detection of health problems.

I have also seen home-visiting programs challenged to address the mental-health needs of their clients, given how prevalent these needs are.

In response to these challenges to addressing mental health among home-visiting clients, over the last several years I have worked closely with home-visiting programs, government agencies, policy-makers and other researchers to develop and test an intervention program — Mothers and Babies — aimed at preventing and treating maternal depression among pregnant women and new mothers.

Mothers and Babies is designed to be delivered by providers from a variety of educational and professional backgrounds and can be delivered as a group or through one-on-one intervention. Mothers and Babies provides women with a useful "toolkit" of approaches to note factors affecting their mood and change behavioral and thought patterns in their daily lives.

We have shown that women who receive the Mothers and Babies intervention experience reduction of depressive symptoms, improved ability to manage their mood, and increased levels of social support.

We are excited to be rolling out Mothers and Babies in home-visiting programs across the state of Florida. With generous funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Florida Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program, and the Florida Association of Healthy Start Coalitions, we will be training home-visiting programs across Florida — including Sarasota County — in Mothers and Babies.

The goal of this work is to prepare home-visiting programs to address maternal depression without the reliance on "outside" mental health professionals — in part, due to the stigma associated with seeking care for one's mental health, as well as other common barriers such as lack of insurance, inadequate access to transportation and child care, and shortage of professional mental-health resources.

While our Mothers and Babies work in Florida and Sarasota County to date is focused on home-visiting programs, we will only reach a subset of pregnant women and new mothers who could benefit from this intervention. There are many other pregnant women and new mothers who receive services at Women, Infant & Children clinics, pediatric primary care and early-childhood programs. These women could also benefit from the strategies and resources provided through the Mothers and Babies intervention.

Our goal is for Mothers and Babies to benefit families and communities throughout the United States. Overwhelmingly, mothers and providers who have experienced Mothers and Babies speak to its ease of use, enjoyment and impact in improving mental health.

Pregnancy and having a new child in the home should be an exciting time. We encourage cities and towns across Florida to think about ways to integrate low-cost and high-impact interventions like Mothers and Babies into the many settings that serve pregnant women, new mothers and young children.

— Darius Tandon, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Medical Social Sciences and associate director of the Center for Community Health, Institute for Public Health and Medicine at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. He will be a featured panelist at the Herald-Tribune's Hot Topics Forum "Shelter from Stress: What Every Family Needs," to be held Friday, Feb. 24, from 3:15 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. at Booker High School's VPA Center, 3201 N. Orange Ave., Sarasota. To reserve a seat call 955-3000 or go to:https://www.eventbrite.com/e/2gen-hot-topics-registration-31606000398.