Proactive support: Project tests new ways of reaching out to parents of newborns at risk
Researchers at the IWK Health Centre are pilot testing a web-based outreach program called ‘Strong Starts, Healthier Futures Together,’ which they developed to support parents of premature babies. Babies born before 35 weeks of gestation are at risk not only for respiratory ailments and learning disabilities but also, as project lead Dr. Cyndi Brannen points out, for emotional and behavioural problems if their mothers are unable to bond with them in the early weeks of life.
“Our program encourages mothers to play and interact with their babies,” says Cyndi, explaining that mothers can be fearful of handling their tiny infants and may feel a sense of separation due in part to the baby’s time in an incubator. “It also teaches and reinforces stress management, relaxation and self-care skills, to help mothers cope better so they can develop a strong and positive attachment to the baby.”
The high demands and stress of caring for a preterm infant makes these mothers particularly vulnerable to depression, says Cyndi, a registered psychologist and research director in the IWK’s Centre for Research on Family Health. She and her collaborators – psychologist Dr. Patrick McGrath, neonatologist Dr. Robin Walker, and pediatrician Dr. Jennifer MacLean – hope that ‘Strong Starts, Healthier Futures Together’ will help prevent depression in mothers of preterm babies.
Through teaching coping and stress management techniques, ‘Strong Starts, Healthier Futures Together’ may reduce the risk for maternal depression, a special concern for mothers of premature infants. “Maternal depression can have a major negative impact on child development,” Cyndi explains. “Depression can make it difficult for a mother to engage positively with her baby. This can lead to negative outcomes for the child, including poor school performance, social difficulties and mental health issues.”
Staff members of the ‘Strong Starts, Healthier Futures Together’ program begin working with parents before they leave the IWK. Once home, mothers complete five weekly learning modules, with telephone support from a trained coach. They even take video recordings of themselves interacting with their babies, which they send to the coach for evaluation and feedback. Fathers complete a separate module specifically designed to help them support the mother, practically and emotionally.
“Our goal is to provide information, tools and support to help mothers and fathers provide the best possible care to their preterm infants, in order to reduce the babies’ risk of developing future emotional, psychological or behavioural problems,” Cyndi says. “Web-based modules and telephone coaching make the program accessible and convenient for families. Eventually, we would like to develop similar outreach programs for parents of other at-risk babies.”
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