Pregnancy can be a time of great joy and excitement for women, but it can also bring upheaval and stress. Physical health problems, worries about childbirth, and the health of their baby, and fears about managing the transition to motherhood all mean that women can be particularly prone to mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, and stress.
In addition to the obvious detrimental impacts on women, we now know that mental health problems in pregnancy can impact on infants too. Depression, anxiety, and stress in pregnancy have all been found to increase the risk of children developing a range of difficulties as they grow up, including emotional problems, cognitive delays and behavioural disorders. Promoting women’s health in pregnancy therefore becomes a vital public health goal, and there is evidence that mindfulness interventions are effective in preventing depression relapse, reducing stress, and improving general quality of life.
Mindfulness practice involves purposely bringing your attention to the present moment, in a curious and accepting way. It is most commonly developed through meditation practices where you focus your awareness on parts of your experience in the here and now – your breath, your body, sounds, thoughts, and emotions.
Mindfulness program in pregnancy – pilot study
The Healthy Mothers Healthy Families Group at Murdoch Children's Research Institute undertook a pilot study of a 6-session mindfulness group program in collaboration with the Royal Women’s Hospital. We wanted to see whether it was feasible to run such a program through antenatal care services, and also to gauge women’s responses to the program to guide us in developing a full scale evaluation.
Overall, women were very positive about their experiences of using techniques and skills developed through participation in the program.
“I’ve got to say the mindfulness in general has pretty much changed my life. It has helped me to be far more in tune and more relaxed about being a mum and having a baby and that sort of stuff as well.”
“I have found the techniques extremely helpful and relevant and I intend to continue on with them in the future. I feel fortunate and thankful to have been able to participate in the program. I feel that the skills taught are valuable to everyone, but particularly to people like me that have developed some not so healthy habits when it comes to dealing with life's curveballs.”
“I feel a lot better than before”
While most comments made by participants in the program were positive, the biggest challenge women identified was finding a way to incorporate mindfulness practice into everyday life, and having the discipline to meditate every day.
We are currently seeking funding to conduct a large multicentre randomised trial of mindfulness practice in pregnancy to be conducted in four maternity hospitals in Victoria. The study will provide much stronger evidence showing whether participation in a 6-session mindfulness group can reduce depression and anxiety in pregnancy, prevent postnatal depression and anxiety, and improve infant cognitive development.
Tips to incorporate mindfulness into your life
Be present in everyday tasks
When putting out the washing, having a shower or at your computer working, bring your attention to your breath, and focus on what is happening at that time. Also be aware of your own reactions (what is happening in your mind and body in response to what is going on around you). Try not to resist or struggle against anything you notice, even if your experience in this moment is unpleasant (feelings such as boredom, anxiety, sadness). Simply maintain your awareness in the present moment as best you can, with curiosity. Notice when your mind wanders completely away from what is happening– i.e. thinking about what’s for dinner, planning the rest of your work day, or remembering a difficult conversation from earlier in the day. As best as you can, bring your attention back to what is happening in the present moment.
The practice of mindful walking is quite simple: it involves focusing all of your attention onto the souls of your feet while walking. Noticing the movement of your feet, and the different physical sensations of pressure, socks, shoes, stretching, muscles tensing. When you mind wanders away (as it is sure to do, over and over again!) gently return your focus to the soles of your feet, as many times as you need to. As you become more confident in this skill, you can expand your awareness to include other parts of your experience while walking – sounds, the feeling of the air on your skin, sounds, and sights. Mindful walking is a wonderful skill for new parents, who may spend a lot of time walking their infant in the pram.
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