How an Active Coping Style Helps New Mothers Deal With Stresses of Parenthood

How an Active Coping Style Helps New Mothers Deal With Stresses of Parenthood

Posted: December 12, 2022
How an Active Coping Style Helps New Mothers Deal With Stresses of Parenthood

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Evidence from brain scans of new mothers suggests how an “active coping style” in the face of stress and adversity promotes her own mental health as well as better outcomes in her child.


Researchers have reported evidence from the brain suggesting that the way in which a new mother copes with her new parenting duties and the care of her infant can contribute to her own mental health as well as to better outcomes in her child.

The study was conducted with the well-known stresses of the postpartum period in mind. These range from difficulties in giving birth and physically caring for the newborn (including the stress of breastfeeding) to changes in the mother’s lifestyle caused by having less time for self-care, career, friends, or leisure activities. In addition to these factors, others can greatly contribute to postnatal stress including financial difficulties, unsafe environments, violence, isolation, and limited social support. Postpartum depression, which can be life-threatening, affects up to one new mother in seven.

“Not all mothers are equally influenced by the demands of the early postpartum period, with some exhibiting robust resilience,” write the authors of a paper in Scientific Reports communicating the study results. “In order to support those who are vulnerable, it is critical to understand what makes mothers more or less susceptible to stress and what makes them more or less resilient.”

A team led by Pilyoung Kim, Ph.D., a 2017 BBRF Independent Investigator at the University of Denver, focused on what they termed “coping styles,” referring to coping strategies that help individuals manage negative emotions and stress.

The researchers recruited 77 first-time mothers ages 18-40 who delivered healthy infants after full-term pregnancies without complications. None of the mothers had a history of psychiatric issues apart from depression and anxiety, and most were not experiencing severe levels of either illness at the time of the study. Mothers with very high income were excluded to emphasize the impact of giving birth on women with financial means close to the national average.

All participants in the study received a home visit by at least two research team members, who collected demographic information, conducted interviews, gave mothers detailed questionnaires, and recorded their infants’ crying sounds.

Coping styles were assessed using a 28-item survey asking questions about how mothers coped with stress in different aspects of their life, including with respect to their newborns. The various strategies and behaviors were grouped into “active coping” and “passive coping” styles.

Active coping styles included conscious efforts to cope with adversity; seeking or receiving emotional support; reframing problematic situations as a means of trying to overcome them; planning; using humor; tending to accept rather than deny a problem; having the ability to distract oneself, at times, from a present burden; and appealing to religious feelings as a support. Passive coping styles included denial of problems, substance use, disengaging with problems, venting, and blaming oneself.

Past research has already given evidence that active coping is more likely to be associated with better responses to stress, and the current study corroborated those findings. “More active coping styles compared to passive ones are associated with adaptive psychological outcomes in mothers,” the team reported.

The new study also addressed the poorly understood question of mechanisms—patterns of brain activity that underlie or are associated with the comparative advantages of an active coping style. For this reason, the team analyzed neuroimaging data from 59 of the study participants, who agreed to receive fMRI brain scans usually within a few weeks of the researchers’ visit to their home. The women were instructed in how to perform certain tasks while the scans were being run, providing functional insights into neural activation patterns pertaining to the women’s coping styles.

Women who used more active coping strategies showed markedly increased brain responses to the sound of infants crying—their own babies, but also those whom they did not know. The increased responsivity occurred in brain regions that are critically involved in motivation and the regulation of emotion, the researchers found (the substantia nigra, anterior cingulate gyrus, and inferior frontal gyrus).

The team also reported that increased brain activation in the midbrain and anterior cingulate gyrus were associated with higher levels of maternal sensitivity observed as they interacted with their infants.

The evidence showed that more active coping tyles were specifically associated with lower anxiety, depressive symptoms, and parenting stress. Thus, concluded the team, “the findings provide support for mothers’ use of more active coping styles to promote neural and behavioral resilience for a positive transition to parenthood.”