Public Release: 

Mindfulness techniques can help protect pregnant women against depression

University of Colorado at Boulder

Pregnant women with histories of major depression are at high risk of becoming depressed again in the months before and after their babies are born. A new study led by the University of Colorado Boulder found that practicing mindfulness techniques--such as meditation, breathing exercises and yoga--could help protect these women against a recurrence.

About 30 percent of women who have struggled with depression in the past relapse during pregnancy, according to past research. In the new study, published in the journal Archives of Women's Mental Health, the research team found that pregnant women with histories of depression who participated in Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy had a relapse rate of just 18 percent.

"It's important for pregnant women who are at high risk of depression to have options for treatment and prevention," said Sona Dimidjian, an associate professor in CU-Boulder's Department of Psychology and Neuroscience and lead author of the study. "For some women, antidepressant medication is truly a lifesaver, but others want a non-pharmacological intervention. This program focuses on teaching women skills and practices that are designed to help them stay well and care for themselves and their babies during this important time of life."

Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy--which combines mindfulness practice with more traditional cognitive behavioral therapy--has been shown to be effective at preventing recurrent episodes of depression in the general population. But few studies of any kind have looked at the effect of mindfulness or cognitive behavioral therapies among pregnant women.

For the current study, funded by the National Institutes of Mental Health, and conducted in collaboration with Sherryl Goodman, a professor at Emory University in Atlanta, 49 women in Colorado and Georgia with at least one prior episode of major depression enrolled in an eight-session class during their pregnancies. During class and using homework assignments, the women worked to develop mindfulness skills.

"Mindfulness is about how to pay attention to your own moment-to-moment experience in a way that is suffused with an openness, curiosity, gentleness and kindness towards oneself," Dimidjian said.

The standard mindfulness practices used in class were tweaked to be more valuable to pregnant women. Lessons included prenatal yoga, walking meditation exercises that could be done later while soothing a baby, and shorter practices that could be easily integrated into the busy lives of new moms. The lessons also specifically addressed worry, which can be common during pregnancy, and put particular focus on kindness for oneself and one's baby.

The research team--which also included CU-Boulder doctoral student Jennifer Felder; Amanda Brown of Emory University in Atlanta; and Robert Gallop of West Chester University in Pennsylvania--surveyed the women for symptoms of depression during their pregnancy and through six months postpartum.

A high percentage of the women who began the courses--86 percent--completed the study, a sign that the women found the sessions valuable, Dimidjian said. The researchers also were struck by the number of pregnant women who expressed interest in participating in a mindfulness program, even though they didn't meet the criteria to participate in this study.

"I was surprised by the level of interest, even among women who didn't have a history of depression," Dimidjian said. "Pregnant women know that the experience of having a child is going to change their lives, and they want to be ready."

Dimidjian has worked to create an online program of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy that could be used as a tool to address the demand by pregnant women and others to develop these skills.

To test the effectiveness of the online program, Dimidjian is now recruiting adult women with a prior history of depression to participate in a new study. The women do not need to be pregnant.


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