Mothers' poor health revealed in new study

Sleep deprived new mothers are doing it tough, but getting help from early parenting centres improves their mental health, according to a new report.

A study from the Key Centre for Women's Health in Society at The University of Melbourne reveals very poor health among mothers with unsettled babies who are admitted to early parenting centres.

The researchers, who assessed 79 women, found they were dangerously sleep deprived with 80% getting fewer than six hours sleep in 24 hours.

Many had symptoms of depression and anxiety and some had suicidal thoughts. At the same time many were coping with additional life demands like a death in the family, moving house and job or relationship problems.

The report titled "Building an evidence base for practice in early parenting centres," will be launched tomorrow (Friday 8 April) in Melbourne. It describes a review of the international literature on early parenting interventions and a follow-up study of mothers and infants admitted to a residential program at Tweddle Child and Family Health Service in Footscray.

Tweddle has served Victorian families for 85 years and is one of three public access early parenting centres in Melbourne. Often misnamed "sleep schools" and historically regarded as a luxury for mothers who “can't cope”, they now offer a range of short-term services and programs to address early parenting problems.

"Our report found that Australia's early parenting centres are a unique resource and provide highly effective treatment for distressed mothers and unsettled babies," said Dr Jane Fisher, senior author of the report.

The University of Melbourne study found that after getting help at Tweddle, women's health and circumstances improved dramatically. One month after discharge, the amount of babies' crying and fussing halved. While at admission, 77% reported their baby's sleep as being poor or very poor, only 29% said it was a problem one month later. This psycho-educational approach appears to be an effective treatment for these difficulties, said Dr Fisher.

But she added that it was worrying that 44% of the participants in the study had experienced operative births, including caesarean surgery or forceps. "This is much higher than in the general population and suggests that the prolonged physical recovery, greater post partum pain and higher likelihood of being separated from the baby at birth, may be contributing to early parenting difficulties.” The rate of IVF or other fertility treatment among this group of women was also four times higher than in the general population.

Other study findings include:

  • 83% of women had one or more health problems which often remained untreated.
  • backache, headaches, breast infections and poor bladder and bowel control were commonplace.
  • There were higher than expected rates of previous miscarriage, stillbirth or pregnancy termination.
  • Mothers have much less leisure time than their partners.
  • Partner behaviour has a strong effect on a mother's mood.
  • Over a third of mothers had more than one child when they went to Tweddle - debunking the myth that only first-time mothers find early parenting a challenge.

There are long waiting lists for services like these at Tweddle which reveal unmet demand, says Vivienne Amery, Tweddle Chief Executive Officer.

She is calling for more support for research on early parenting. "The high number of women admitted to Tweddle with their own health problems is a concern. We have already responded to the findings of the report by starting a psychology service that puts women in touch with relevant support agencies after their stay at Tweddle," she said.

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