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Emotion Regulation

Emotion Regulation in Moms Helps Children's Health

Developing emotion regulation in pregnancy leads to better outcomes for babies.

Key points

  • Adaptive and flexible emotion regulation skills are critical for parenting and general psychological health.
  • Caregiver difficulty with emotion regulation can influence a baby's stress response.
  • Improving emotion regulation skills through mindfulness interventions in pregnancy may help promote healthy development in children.
Aditya Romans/unsplash
Source: Aditya Romans/unsplash

As a mother of two small kids, motherhood is a primary identity for me and it shapes so much of how I view myself, what I do with my time, and the choices I make in my life. Thoughts cross my mind day to day around if I’m doing the right thing, how they will turn out as they grow up, or how I can be a better mom. At the same time, I teach and try to live by the philosophy of "good enough" parenting, knowing that I cannot be perfect but can always show unconditional love and warmth to my kids and help them feel safe and supported.

As a psychologist, I know how crucial emotional intelligence is. One thing I emphasize with my children is how we can learn to name, understand, and regulate our emotions. I model this myself, showing them how I can focus on my breath and calm my body down when I’m feeling angry or upset. Modeling is a huge way that children learn, and that is especially true for how to navigate strong emotions.

The importance of caregiver emotion regulation skills

Emotion regulation is a key component of healthy socioemotional development. Difficulty with emotion regulation, or emotion dysregulation, is a risk factor for the development and maintenance of a wide range of mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Emotional learning begins in infancy, and early caregiver relationships are critical to establishing a solid base for learning emotion regulation skills. In fact, new research by Gao et al.1 shows that maternal emotion dysregulation in the postpartum period is related to reduced respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) in babies, a marker of impaired parasympathetic functioning and a biological indicator of emotion dysregulation. Low RSA in infants is a risk factor for later health and behavioral problems. Treating maternal (or other caregiver) emotion dysregulation could be crucial in reducing the risk for the transmission of mental health difficulties across generations at this physiological level. Intervening early and promoting resilience and adaptive emotion regulation in pregnancy may be key.

Omurden Ceng/unsplash
Source: Omurden Ceng/unsplash

Mindfulness-based interventions

A promising approach for addressing emotion dysregulation in pregnancy and the postpartum period is the use of mindfulness-based interventions. Mindfulness reflects being present in the moment in a non-judgmental way and on purpose. Mindfulness-based interventions teach techniques and skills that help to train attention, promote greater awareness and acceptance of thoughts and feelings, and foster a nonjudgmental and flexible approach to relating to internal and external experiences. Mindfulness interventions help improve emotion regulation and physiological functioning and may be particularly valuable in helping caregivers to improve emotion regulation abilities in the critical stages of pregnancy and postpartum periods.

We still have a lot to learn about the direct effects of mindfulness interventions in caregivers on infant development. A recent study by Noroña-Zhou et al.2 aimed to test that by examining if a mindfulness intervention in pregnancy improved infant stress reactivity and regulation in the postpartum period. Using a quasi-experimental design with 135 mother-infant pairs, this study compared how pregnant women’s participation in an 8-week group mindfulness intervention versus treatment as usual (TAU) impacted infant stress response at 6-months-of-age. They found that infants of mothers in the mindfulness intervention showed greater regulatory behavior compared to those with mothers in TAU, suggesting that early interventions with mothers could be vital in setting the stage for healthy socioemotional development.

Importantly, this study included a racially and ethnically diverse sample of women with limited socioeconomic resources. This matters because women marginalized based on race, ethnicity, and income show particularly high levels of prenatal stress and psychological symptoms3 and yet have much less access to mental health treatment. Finding effective interventions that can improve outcomes across generations in vulnerable communities is imperative. Because mindfulness interventions can be helpful across many different psychological symptoms, it has strong potential to be useful in many settings.

Melissa Askew/unsplash
Source: Melissa Askew/unsplash

Mindfulness has gained popularity in recent years and there are many informal ways to incorporate it into your own life. Both daily formal and informal practice is helpful. It's helpful to play around with different practices so you can find what works best for you: Do you like imagery? Is it easier to have someone leading you through an exercise? Is it helpful to get out in nature? Including your children and doing mindfulness exercises together can be a great way to connect and foster emotion regulation skills in both of you. For those struggling with significant psychological symptoms, getting professional support with mindfulness interventions is recommended.

There's no time like now. How can you be mindful today?

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1. Gao, M. M., Kaliush, P. R., Brown, M. A., Shakiba, N., Raby, K. L., Crowell, S. E., & Conradt, E. (2022). Unique Contributions of Maternal Prenatal and Postnatal Emotion Dysregulation on Infant Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia. Research on Child and Adolescent Psychopathology, 1-14.

2. Noroña-Zhou, A. N., Coccia, M., Epel, E., Vieten, C., Adler, N. E., Laraia, B., ... & Bush, N. R. The Effects of a Prenatal Mindfulness Intervention on Infant Autonomic and Behavioral Reactivity and Regulation. Psychosomatic Medicine, 10-1097.

3. Powers, A., Woods-Jaeger, B., Stevens, J. S., Bradley, B., Patel, M. B., Joyner, A., ... & Michopoulos, V. (2020). Trauma, psychiatric disorders, and treatment history among pregnant African American women. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 12(2), 138.

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