Researchers studied a group of mothers - some of whom had used cocaine during pregnancy - and measured their babies' behavior (using cry analysis, and reaction to stimuli) at birth. Subsequently, they asked mothers to rate their babies' temperaments when they were four months old.
They discovered that newborn babies who were more reactive to stimulation were rated as more difficult later in infancy. This finding was seen most strongly in infants whose mothers experienced a lot of stress related to being a parent.
Importantly, these ratings were not affected by whether or not mothers used drugs during pregnancy. Across the board, the mothers who felt the most parenting stress were the ones who rated their babies' behavior as more difficult.
"Whether or not a mother had used drugs, if she felt more stress in her role as a parent, she was more likely to view her baby as difficult and more likely to view her baby's behaviors just after birth as stressful," says lead author Stephen J. Sheinkopf, PhD, with Bradley Hospital, Brown Medical School and Women & Infants' Hospital. The study appears in the current issue of the Journal of Pediatric Psychology.
These results suggest that, regardless of drug-exposure status, the manner in which parents react to and cope with challenging infant behaviors can be affected by their stress levels.
"Because we now know that the effect of parenting stress is true both for mothers with and without a history of drug use, these findings support our view that we can help mothers with drug use problems be happier and more effective parents," says Sheinkopf.
This study corroborates previous research showing that high levels of maternal stress are related to poor behavioral outcomes in young children.
"If mothers are highly stressed as parents, this will affect the ways that they think about and interact with their babies. This can have long term effects on how children develop and how families function," says Sheinkopf.
Experts know that prenatal cocaine exposure can lead to developmental risks for infants. What remains unclear is the extent to which social environmental risk factors play a part of developmental delays, including maternal stress and maternal perceptions of difficult infant temperament.
"Therefore, an important goal for research is to identify factors that may either magnify or lessen risk in cocaine-exposed infants," the authors say.
In this study, children in the cocaine-exposed group had lower socioeconomic status (SES). Lower SES was also correlated to greater reactivity to stimuli in newborns, and higher parenting stress and psychological distress in mothers.
This study was funded by the National Institutes on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the National Institute on Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), the Administration for Youth and Families (ACYF), and the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (CSAT)
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Founded in 1931, Bradley Hospital (www.bradleyhospital.org) was the nation's first psychiatric hospital operating exclusively for children. Today, it remains a premier medical institution devoted to the research and treatment of childhood psychiatric illnesses. Bradley Hospital, located in Providence, RI, is a teaching hospital for Brown Medical School and ranks in the top third of private hospitals receiving funding from the National Institutes of Health. Its research arm, the Bradley Hasbro Children's Research Center (BHCRC), brings together leading researchers in such topics as: autism, colic, childhood sleep patterns, HIV prevention, infant development, obesity, eating disorders, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and juvenile firesetting. Bradley Hospital is a member of the Lifespan health system.