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Office of Neuroscience Research > WUSTL Neuroscience News > Caring for mom & baby

Caring for mom & baby

Feature article from WashU Outlook Magazine...

Robin Torrence-Webber was thrilled when, at 37, she became pregnant with her second child. But a diagnosis of preeclampsia and an emergency caesarian section at 23 weeks presented a difficult reality. Babies generally are not considered medically viable before 24 weeks of gestation.

She woke to learn that her newborn son, Baby Ray Webber III, who weighed just 1 pound, 1.6 ounces, had been taken from Barnes-Jewish Hospital to St. Louis Children’s Hospital, where doctors were trying to save his life.

Three days later, Torrence-Webber finally got to see her baby. “He was so little,” she said. “He could literally fit in the palm of my hand.” Torrence-Webber spent days and nights at the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), not knowing if her son would survive.

While Ray clung to life, Torrence-Webber grew more anxious and depressed. She was torn between taking care of her daughter at home and visiting Ray in the NICU.

“I was having anxiety attacks,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t function.”

Torrence-Webber sought help after NICU staff told her about the Perinatal Behavioral Health Service (PBHS) at the School of Medicine. The PBHS offers counseling and psychiatric care for pregnant women and new mothers with anxiety or depression.

Physical, emotional toll on baby

Fifteen percent of women experience perinatal anxiety or depression. Although women with a history of psychiatric disorders are predisposed to the condition, it can strike anyone. For women with babies in the NICU, the number jumps to 40 percent. Parents of babies in the NICU undergo enormous stress and often face unaddressed mental health issues.

Cynthia Rogers, MD, one of the PBHS founders, determined that by setting up services to treat these mothers, she could improve the outcomes of their children.

Rogers, an assistant professor of child psychiatry, has studied how exposure to a parent with behavioral health issues affects brain development in young children, increasing the likelihood of childhood psychiatric disorders.

Left untreated, such issues can affect a child physically and emotionally, beginning in the womb. Studies suggest that the mother’s physiology during pregnancy can change the baby’s physiology.

Elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, common in depressed patients, are believed to affect development of a part of the brain called the amygdala. Other research has revealed differences in the thickness of the cerebral cortex between infants of depressed mothers and a control group. Behaviorally, such infants are at increased risk for fussiness, failure to thrive, and developmental delay at 1 year of age.

Mental health issues also affect how moms are able to care for and interact with their children. “Mothers with untreated mood disorders are less likely to engage in a host of nurturing behaviors proven to promote healthy development and attachment, including breastfeeding, being emotionally responsive and affectionate, reading, and singing to babies,” Rogers said.

Moreover, studies have shown that children whose parents have untreated mental health issues are at much greater risk to experience abuse and neglect. As they grow, these children are more likely to develop mental issues such as depression and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

“When you don’t treat moms, you see a significant impact on child mental health, academic performance and many other outcomes,” Rogers said.

For the complete story, click here.