Study explores the link between childbirth experiences and early infant temperament
In a recent study published in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers explored mothers’ childbirth and postnatal experiences, perceptions of their baby’s early behavioral style, and whether they saw these as related.
Study: Does a mother’s childbirth experience influence her perceptions of her baby’s behaviour? A qualitative interview study. Image Credit: Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock.com
Although medical interventions during childbirth have reduced the risk to the mother’s and baby’s life during complicated births, they present their own set of risks that could have an adverse impact on the well-being and health of the mother and infant.
Studies have reported that assisted birth and pain relief medications during birth are linked to unsettled early behavior by the infant, including crying and difficulties in breastfeeding.
Furthermore, the impact of intrusive medical procedures and interventions on the mother’s psychological health could also have a long-term impact on the relationship between the mother and the infant.
Post-partum depression and post-traumatic stress disorder due to complicated childbirth involving obstetric interventions and the inability to hold the infant immediately after delivery could disrupt the mother-infant relationship and the bonding and breastfeeding process.
While studies have indicated that the mother’s response during childbirth may influence the stress response of the infant, the effect of the mother’s subjective experience during delivery on the infant’s behavior remained unclear.
About the study
In the present study, the researchers recruited mothers above 18 from Wales and Southwest England to participate in an interview-based study. The participants were required to be in good mental and physical health and have only one infant below the age of one.
Individuals were excluded if they were suffering from a major mental or physical illness or had multiple infants or if the infant was unwell, preterm, or had low birth weight. Cases where the five-minute Apgar score of the infant, which indicates how well the baby tolerated the childbirth process, was below seven were also excluded.
The interview was, on average, 15 minutes to an hour based on how detailed the mother’s responses were and comprised open-ended questions that encouraged a free flow of feelings, thoughts, and beliefs without leading questions or constraints.
The interviewers asked the mother to describe their experiences during the birthing process and their infant’s behavior since birth and whether they found any association between the birth and the infant’s behavior.
Additionally, sociodemographic data were collected, including age, occupation, highest educational level, number of children, marital status, and intention to return to work.
The results indicated that although the childbirth process was psychologically and physically momentous for the mothers, they did not perceive their baby’s temperament or behavior during the early period to be directly affected by the process.
Although a straightforward or uncomplicated birth was associated with a calm baby, mothers who experienced a complicated delivery and a challenging postnatal period did not connect their experience during the birthing process with the temperament of their baby.
However, some mothers who experienced a complicated delivery requiring medical intervention reported that the infant exhibited unsettled behavior, although they did not attribute it to the birth.
The researchers discussed that this could be due to an inability or reluctance by the mothers due to guilt, denial, or dissociation after a difficult experience to acknowledge that their infant’s behavior could potentially be connected to the birthing process.
Mothers who feel depressed or anxious due to the stress and trauma of a difficult delivery and those lacking a good social support system may perceive their baby as unsettled. In comparison, mothers who have had an easier birth and have a support system can find it easier to care for their babies.
The unsettled behavior of a baby whose birth was complicated and required medical intervention, such as forceps during the delivery, could be due to residual distress or pain.
Furthermore, there are physiological links indicating that the increase in the cortisol levels of the mother during labor affects the infant, and levels of cortisol in the umbilical cord of infants that were born through assisted birth were higher.
Maternal cortisol levels can have long-term impacts on the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis, immune function, and gut microbiome of the infant.
Overall, the results indicated that while the mothers did not perceive their childbirth experience to be directly linked to their baby’s temperament, the psychological and physical experiences during childbirth impact the infant’s well-being and influence how the mother perceives the early temperament and behavior of the infant.
The results highlight the need for a good social support system during delivery and in the postnatal period for the mother-infant relationship to thrive.