Brandon University researcher’s project helps new mothers form bonds with their babies

A new mother sees a smile on her baby’s face and smiles back.

Subtle interactions like this are vital to a baby’s development, but can be difficult for mothers with postpartum depression (PPD).

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Brandon University (BU) researcher Penny Tryphonopoulos is working on a project that uses video feedback to help women with PPD see and understand how positive interactions benefit their babies. Tryphonopoulos and Nicole Letourneau of the University of Calgary (UCalgary) are leading the project, which is being funded by a Canadian Institutes of Health Research grant of nearly $570,000.

“Postpartum depression is experienced by about one in five mothers and also affects their families,” says Tryphonopoulos. “Research has shown the early months of babies’ lives are extremely important in their development. By encouraging and enabling positive interactions between moms and their babies, we can help to foster a new generation of happy and healthy children.”

The Canadian Mental Health Association says that postpartum depression can begin at any time from pregnancy up until a child is one year old. It lasts longer than the baby blues, which are often gone in a couple of weeks. Babies are able to perceive the stress, which releases hormones that decrease brain volume, which over the long term can lead to behavioural and cognitive problems.

The research project is a large-scale exploration of a successful trial for Tryphonopoulos’s dissertation for her PhD, which was supervised by Letourneau. Nurses use a video system Tryphonopoulos has dubbed VID-KIDS to record interactions between mothers and their babies. In a supportive fashion, a nurse can review the footage with a mother to show her the signs of healthy interaction.

“This can benefit not only the child but the mother as well,” says Tryphonopoulos, who earned her PhD last spring before joining BU’s Faculty of Health Studies last fall as an Assistant Professor. “The babies get the valuable stimulation that supports learning and growth. When their moms see them react with smiles and noises, it can help to alleviate the stress that is caused by their depression.”

Researchers at universities across North America are working on the system, although for now the trials will take place at Calgary Public Health facilities, where Tryphonopoulos built many contacts while working on her PhD. If the trials are successful, the researchers hope to expand the system, and Tryphonopoulos would love to make it available to mothers in Brandon and the surrounding area.

“Due to the widespread nature of postpartum depression, this research has the potential to have an incredible impact on families across North America,” says Dean Care, Dean of Health Studies at BU. “This project is an excellent example of co-operation between institutions producing positive results for their communities. At BU, we’re proud of Penny’s role in this project.”

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