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Experienced parents know that if you can keep your mental health intact through the sleepless infancy months, the terrible twos, and the first day of kindergarten, you can then look forward to the perils of puberty and the terrible teens. In short, parenting can be tough.
But new research suggests that practicing mindfulness while your baby is in utero can help preserve your mental health later—not just in the weeks and months immediately after giving birth but for up to eight years.
Long-lasting mental-health benefits of mindfulness
A study conducted by researchers at the University of California-San Francisco included pregnant women who participated in an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program. Sessions included two hours of mindful eating, breathing, and movement each week. After their babies were born, the moms received two follow-up phone calls and attended a group meeting.
Eight years later, only 12 percent of the women in the stress reduction program reported symptoms of depression, compared with 25 percent of the control group. The results were especially remarkable because the study period included the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic–a time when everyone was more at risk for mental-health issues.
The significance of the study is not just that the mindful activities helped. There’s plenty of evidence that such activities are beneficial for mental health. It’s that they had such long-term benefits for the parents–and their children had better stress responses as well.
“Our findings suggest a meaningful benefit of a modest investment during pregnancy that supports well-being across two generations,” said study author Danielle Roubinov, PhD, in Science Daily.
Prenatal yoga classes offer special benefits
“Prenatal classes are not just moving your body and breathing and meditating and enjoying Savasana,” says Alexandra DeSiato. She is co-founder of Whole Mama Yoga, a collective that offers classes for pregnant people and new parents in North Carolina. “All of those things are wonderfully important. But [there’s] a distinction about prenatal classes versus traditional yoga classes.”
Prenatal yoga classes serve women and birth parents at a time where they’re potentially vulnerable, she says. It’s important for yoga teachers who work with pregnant people or new parents to know the signs for perinatal depression and anxiety. They should be able to refer their students to resources for emotional and practical support, including perinatal wellness specialists, doulas, lactation consultants, or other kinds of support.
New parents benefit from community
DeSiato says the UCSF study also supports something that perinatal wellness experts have long known: “Community connection makes a tremendous difference to moms and birth parents.”
“We know from previous research that postpartum depression…correlates quite strongly with less social support,” she says. “But studies like this reveal to us that community connections and social support are therapeutic. The connections created in prenatal yoga classes truly can be the difference between resilience in new mothers or not.”
Making prenatal yoga accessible to all parents
This study was also significant because it included women of diverse races and ethnicities. Most studies on perinatal depression focus on white women, according to Nicki Bush, PhD, the senior author of the study. This study also included women of lower socioeconomic status.
Black people and Latinos tend to be more at risk of depression than other groups. Black and Indigenous women are at greater risk of adverse pregnancy outcomes–which can make those nine months even more stressful and frightening as well as potentially dangerous.
“In those communities…the impact of prenatal yoga is of deep value,” DeSiato says. The research results suggest that mindfulness programs could offer an accessible, low-cost way for women to get support for their mental health—before, during, and after pregnancy. The self-care skills developed in mindfulness practice such as yoga, are portable. They don’t require medical intervention and you can apply them whenever and wherever you need them.
“Sometimes [people] think that yoga is ‘a nice thing’ for a prenatal person to do,” DeSiato says. “But studies like this show us that yoga and wellness classes—and community connections—can really be the difference between mothers and birth parents thriving or not thriving.”