Well-adjusted moms have healthy births

July 09, 1999

Women who feel positive about themselves, their futures, and their ability to control important aspects of their lives are likely to bear healthy-weight infants, even under difficult circumstances, a new study reports. Women with these positive psychological resources often experience lower stress, a condition frequently linked with full-term births.

Scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles studied the importance of a pregnant woman's stress levels and psychological traits in conjunction with her income, ethnicity, and other factors.

"One important contribution of our study was to add to the sparse literature on the manner in which psychological resources in the form of self-relevant beliefs affect maternal and fetal health," said Christine Killingsworth Rini, author of the study. "A woman's ability to adapt to the changes and challenges of pregnancy is important to the outcome of the pregnancy, and is affected by her outlook and the level of stress she experiences."

Collaborators included Christine Dunkel-Schetter, PhD, head of the project at UCLA, and Curt Sandman, PhD, principal investigator of the project, which was based in the University of California, Irvine.

The team studied 230 pregnant women in an effort to shed light on the enduring problem of adverse birth outcomes. Of this country's live births, 11 percent occur prematurely (before 37 weeks), and 7 percent of the babies are of low birth weight (2,500 grams or less). These are the major causes of death for newborns and infants. The researchers report their findings in the current issue of Health Psychology.

Participants, including 120 Hispanics and 110 whites, were recruited during prenatal visits to a southern California medical facility. Half the women reported annual household incomes of $20,000 or less. Their average age was 26 years. Eighty-two percent of the Hispanics had been born outside the United States.

When the women reached the early third trimester of pregnancy, researchers administered questionnaires and conducted interviews over two appointments.

White women gave birth to babies who were significantly heavier than babies of Hispanic women (an average of 3,504 grams versus 3,244 grams). They also expressed greater optimism, self-esteem, and - mastery - that is, a feeling of control over one's destiny.

There were no ethnic differences in gestational age at birth (39 weeks), nor did the groups differ in stress levels, which included both general and pregnancy-related anxiety. Pregnancy-related anxiety includes a woman's fears about her own health, her baby's health, and labor and delivery.

Psychological resources and stress, rather than ethnicity, predicted what kind of births the women would have.

"White women's more favorable psychological resources were associated with their greater likelihood of being married and having higher income and more education," said Rini. "Hispanics, on the other hand, had less positive views of themselves, their futures, and their ability to control events in their lives. This may be caused by language barriers, financial problems, separation from loved ones, racial discrimination, and possibly a cultural tendency towards fatalistic explanations for events."

The research was supported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the National Institute of Mental Health.

Health Psychology is the official, peer-reviewed research journal of the Division of Health Psychology (Division 38), American Psychological Association. For information about the journal, please contact its editor, David Krantz, PhD, at 310-295-3273.

Posted by the Center for the Advancement of Health www.cfah.org. For information about the Center, call Petrina Chong, pchong@cfah.org 202- 387-2829.

Center for Advancing Health

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