Distressed mothers during the COVID-19 pandemic may give birth to infants with difficult temperament

In a previous post, we have anticipated the longitudinal MOM-COPE research project. This is a multi-centric and prospective study that involves ten neonatal units in Northern Italy and that was launched in May 2020 to follow up on the health of mothers who were pregnant during the pandemic outbreak and the developmental trajectories of their infants. The full research protocol is available for open access in BMJ Open. While the study is ongoing, we have started to highlight how maternal stress experienced during pregnancy in such a critical emergency period may contribute to set altered trajectories of infants' behavioral development. In a recent paper in Development and Psychopathology, we have published the first longitudinal data.

In this paper, we have reported on more than 150 mother-infant dyads followed up from delivery to 3-month-age. Mothers provided self-report measures of prenatal pandemic-related stress, perceived social support, post-delivery anxiety, and 3-month parenting stress and attachment to the baby. Moreover, at 3 months after delivery, they reported on their infant's temperament responding to a well-validated questionnaire. Women who experienced higher pandemic-related stress and those who received less social support reported during pregnancy reported higher anxiety after delivery. Additionally, maternal postnatal anxiety was significantly associated with infants' temperament trait for behavioral regulation at three months. Nonetheless, this association was mediated by the scores parents' provided for parenting stress and feelings of bonding to the baby.

In other words, women who were pregnant and gave birth during the pandemic may have experienced a stressful experience that may have relevant implications for their immediate psychological health and their infants' behavioral development. Notably, these negative effects appear to be at least partially mediated by the caregiving environment - parenting stress and postnatal bonding. As such, it is mandatory that healthcare systems invest and promote services and dedicated actions to support and protect the health of mother-infant dyads during and after the pandemic. Creating and strengthening opportunities of care for new mothers and their babies is not only of paramount relevance in the emergency period we are living; it may also lead to increased awareness and capacity in taking care of mothers and infants, with benefits that may persist well beyond the present pandemic.

Full citation: Provenzi, L., Grumi, S., Altieri, L., Bensi, G., Bertazzoli, E., Biasucci, G., . . . Borgatti, R. (2021). Prenatal maternal stress during the COVID-19 pandemic and infant regulatory capacity at 3 months: A longitudinal study. Development and Psychopathology, 1-9. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0954579421000766[Opens in a new window]