Posted 12.19.2016 | by AMRA

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Pregnancy profoundly affects women’s bodies. Women’s heart rate, blood pressure, and autonomic nervous system functioning undergo significant changes as pregnancy proceeds, and many women experience degrees of emotional distress. Some of these changes have the potential to deleteriously affect the mother’s long-term health as well as her infant’s social and emotional development.

Braeken et al. [Psychophysiology] conducted a longitudinal study of how differing levels of trait mindfulness are associated with differing levels of cardiovascular and autonomic functioning in pregnant mothers and with their newborn infant’s social and emotional development in the months following birth.

The researcher’s recruited 156 pregnant Dutch women who volunteered for inclusion in the study (average age = 33 years). Repeated measures of maternal cardiovascular function (blood pressure, heart rate, heart rate variability, and the length of the time interval between ventricular contraction and blood injection into the aorta known as the “pre-ejection period”) were taken during the first and third trimesters of pregnancy, along with a self-report measure of emotional distress.

Trait mindfulness was measured during the second trimester using the Freiburg Mindfulness Inventory. Maternal emotional distress was again measured 2-4 months after delivery, and infant social-emotional development was assessed by maternal report the fourth month after delivery using the Ages and Stages Questionnaire-Social Emotional (ASQ-SE).

Maternal mindfulness was significantly associated with higher levels of general heart rate variability and high frequency heart rate variability. The more mindful the women were, the less their high frequency heart rate variability declined and the less their pre-ejection period shortened from the first to the third trimester. These results are interpreted as showing that more versus less mindful women have lower decreases in parasympathetic nervous system activity over the course of their pregnancy, given that these cardiac measures reflect changes in autonomic nervous system function. Higher levels of mindfulness were significantly associated with lower levels of emotional distress both during and after pregnancy.

The ASQ-SE adaptive functioning sub-scale was significantly associated with maternal mindfulness, so that more mindful mothers had infants who showed higher levels of adaptive functioning. Adaptive functioning refers to the relative absence of difficulties in feeding, sleeping and elimination.

This study observes that mindful women have less of a decrease in parasympathetic activity over the course of their pregnancy, which could be an important finding in preventing problems like gestational hypertension and preeclampsia. It also finds that mindful women experience less emotional distress, which could be an important finding in preventing postpartum depression. Lastly, it finds that mindful mother’s infants have higher levels of adaptive functioning, which may reflect their calmer pregnancies, or perhaps a more mindful parenting style.

The study is limited by it being an associational rather than an interventional study, thus it cannot prove that mindfulness was the effective cause of these benefits, or that mindfulness training might produce the same sorts of benefits. Only future studies can test how robust these findings are and whether training pregnant women to be more mindful will show similar benefits on cardiovascular and emotional health outcomes.

Reference:

Braeken, M. A., Jones, A., Otte, R. A., Nyklíček, I., Van den Bergh, B. R. (2016). Potential benefits of mindfulness during pregnancy on maternal autonomic nervous system function and infant development. Psychophysiology.

[Link to abstract]