Public Release: 2-Dec-2016
New mothers preoccupied with their problems can find it more difficult to respond to their babies
Mothers who have repetitive and self-focused negative thoughts about their own problems can have poorer-quality relationships with their babies
University of Exeter
Mothers who have repetitive and self-focused negative thoughts about their own problems can have poorer-quality relationships with their babies, new research from the University of Exeter shows.
Although it is completely normal for mums with young babies to worry about practical, personal or parenting problems on a daily basis, the study found that when negative thoughts about the self and personal problems become all-encompassing and overwhelming (e.g. Why don't I feel happy?, Why can't I cope as well as other Mums?), mothers become less sensitive and responsive to their young children compared to mothers who are not preoccupied in this way.
The study expected to find that the effects of rumination, or dwelling and becoming over-preoccupied with personal thoughts and problems, would be worse when mothers also had symptoms of depression. Surprisingly the researchers found that it didn't matter if mothers were feeling low or not.
Maternal sensitivity was affected in a number of ways, and in different ways for different mums. The researchers examined, among other things, the mothers' facial expression, body language, speech and choice of activity with their baby. Some 'ruminating' mothers had less eye contact with their baby and did not comfort the infant if they became distressed, some also chose an activity that was not appropriate for the infant's age, or spoke to their child in a flat or quieter tone.
The purpose of our study was to help identify thinking styles that might contribute to more or less sensitive parenting. The good news is that there are strategies to help manage rumination, and our research suggests that changing rumination can reduce potentially negative interactions with baby."
Previous research on worry and rumination by Professor Ed Watkins and other psychologists has shown that when repetitively thinking about problems or difficulties, it is much more helpful to focus on the problem in a specific and focussed way, such as when, where and how it happened and how you can fix it (e.g., "How can I begin to address this?"), rather than on the more general meanings and consequences of the problem (e.g., "Why does this keep happening to me? What is wrong with me?"). This more specific, focussed way of thinking can improve problem-solving, help to keep difficulties in perspective, and improve mood.
Dr. Heather O'Mahen said: "We know that mums are often getting by on a small amount of sleep. It can feel tricky for mums to try to stick to a focused approach when they're so tired. It can be especially important at this time for mums to talk through their worries in this specific and focussed way with other people she trusts. We also urge mothers not to be too hard on themselves. No mother is perfect. We know from other research by Dr. Anke Karl and colleagues that being gentle and kind to yourself can also counter the effects of rumination."