Welcome to my blog, which speaks to parents, professionals who work with children, and policy makers. Through stories from my behavioral pediatrics practice (with details changed to protect privacy) I will show how contemporary developmental science can be applied to support parents in their efforts to facilitate their children’s healthy emotional development. I will address factors that converge to obstruct such support. These include limited access to quality mental health care, influences of a powerful health insurance industry and intensive marketing efforts by the pharmaceutical industry.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

What might redefining "term pregnancy" mean for parents and babies?

So far the discussion on the policy change by the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) has focused on the implication for timing of delivery. While previously babies had been considered "term" at 37- 42 weeks, the new policy defines term as 39-40 weeks. Babies born at 37-38 weeks are considered "early term" and those born at 41-42 weeks "late term."

The main consequence of this policy change is an official recognition that babies at 37-38 weeks are still not optimally mature for delivery.  The main objective of the policy is to "expand efforts to prevent nonmedically indicated deliveries before 39 weeks gestation*." In other words, doctors should not electively induce delivery or perform c-sections before 39 weeks. An article in Time magazine on the subject refers to a recent study showing an increased incidence of medical complications in what are now officially "early term" deliveries.

But given my interest in the parent-baby relationship and its impact on healthy development after birth, I had a different take on the significance of this change. Many babies born at 37-38 weeks are not induced or delivered by c-section. For a range of reasons, most of the time not an identifiable one, a mother may spontaneously go in to labor at 37 weeks. And, in contrast to the babies in the above study, the vast majority of these babies do not end up in the neonatal intensive care unit. They are in the regular nursery for the typical 48 hour stay.

My hope is that the policy change will focus more attention on the vulnerabilities of these babies.  The important question is,  "What is the implication for these babies who are not at optimal states of maturity, yet are cared for along side the now "term" babies and treated by professionals as if they are no different?" I put this question to a colleague of mine who is a hospitalist in a major teaching hospital in Boston. Her full time job is to care for newborns and parents following delivery and up to discharge in the regular nursery.

Personally I think this more nuanced classification of who the "full-term" baby is will be important for the parents and other professional who are supporting and teaching the family in the early weeks of life - eg. nurses in the well nursery, lactation consultants and medical providers.  Currently, unless a baby is under 37 weeks, they are all seen as fairly similar in their capabilities with differences being attributed to temperament or "personality" rather than gestation maturity.
There's a continuum to observed physiological parameters that may not be appreciated or fully noticed when babies are lumped together as full-term between 37-42wks; these include degree of sleepiness, subtlety of feeding cues, amount of energy reserves, ability to regulate state changes, muscular tone to name a few.  All of these impact the newborns' behaviors; especially feeding which is a primary focus for parents with their newborns.

Understanding that their infant's capabilities are related very often to his/her gestational age will reassure parents about their own capabilities as they learn to observe/make sense of their new infant's behaviors/cues with a more informed/understanding eye and less self-blame when trying (or struggling) to feed or to calm or to awaken their newborn.  

As my colleague wisely points out, what it looks like in real life when a baby is not "optimally mature," is that the baby may be difficult to arouse,  cry more or in general be more challenging to care for. Much of a new parent's sense of competence comes from successfully feeding her baby. If the baby's challenges with feeding are not identified and linked to his early gestational age, a parent may experience feelings of frustration and failure. She may abandon breast feeding or slide in to depression as she struggles to meet the needs of her baby.

In previous posts, I have referred to a wonderful tool, the Newborn Behavioral Observation System, that offers the opportunity to identify a baby's unique strengths and vulnerabilities.  This video of a brief excerpt of the NBO with a 3-day-old infant shows the newborn's tremendous capacities for communication. The NBO offers the opportunity to look at these qualities in a systematic way.

My hope is that now that the ACOG has officially identified these "early term " babies as vulnerable, professionals who interact with these families will offer parents the opportunity to identify possible challenges and develop strategies to manage these challenges, which with care and attention will resolve in a short time as the baby matures.

*Gestational age refers to the number of weeks since a mother's last normal menstrual period.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Moving beyond the DSM paradigm of mental health care

A paradigm is a way of thinking about things. For the past 60 or so years, our thinking about mental health and illness has been dominated by what can be referred to as the "DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) paradigm." What this looks like in everyday practice is that when a child is referred to my behavioral pediatrics practice for say, anxiety, the questions that parents, referring doctors, and teachers ask is, "Does he have anxiety disorder?" followed by  "How to we manage his behavior?" and "Does he need medication?"

The DSM paradigm has been useful as a way of organizing our thinking. But it is important to recognize that these "disorders" of anxiety, depression, ADHD etc, are simply lists of symptoms that tend to go together. They do not correspond to any known biological processes in the way that, for example, diabetes is a result of lack of insulin.

When the DSM system was first created, we did not have the powerful health insurance and pharmaceutical industries that we have today. Because of the existence of these entities, we are currently in a position of being forced in to a very narrow view of mental health and illness.

The DSM system is a black and white paradigm with only the possibility of "normal" or "disordered."
According to the DSM paradigm, if the answer to the first question about my anxious patient is no, and there is no diagnosis, there is no insurance coverage, and so no help. But clearly such a family is struggling.

 We need a paradigm shift, defined as a fundamental change in approach and underlying assumptions. A new paradigm is needed that gives room for the complexity that we have learned from the abundance of research at the interface of developmental psychology, neuroscience and epigenetics.

The child above may have a strong family history of anxiety traits. He may have a strong genetic vulnerability for anxiety. However, if a parent who shares these traits was slapped across the face for her "difficult behavior" when she was a child, she may become so overwhelmed with stress in the face of her child's challenges that she is unable to help him to manage his anxiety. Marital conflict, perhaps exacerbated by the stress of a child who is struggling, can further add to the complexity. The environment in which this child grows and develops will determine the way in which his genetic vulnerability is expressed.

As I described in a previous post, the field of infant mental health offers such a paradigm. It is relational, developmental and founded in the basic principle that behavior has meaning. It gives us a way to organize our thinking about the problems of the family I describe above.  It offers a path to treatment, namely to support the efforts of the child's parents to recognize the complex meaning of his behavior. Once parents feel heard and understood, and have the opportunity to make sense of their child's behavior, they will be better able to help him manage his anxiety. They might involve him in physical activities or creative activities that help him to feel calm in his body. They might get help for their own relationship. They might work together with the child's teachers to strategize about how to support him in the school setting.

Thanks to my book, Keeping Your Child in Mind, I had the honor of being invited to give the Paul A. Dewald lecture this week in St Louis.  My book is about the idea that rather than jump  "what to do" about a child's behavior, it is important to simply "be" with that child,  to think about that child. As I prepared the talk I came to recognize that the same holds true for our whole system of mental health care.  Before we can plan "what to do" to apply the wealth of research I refer to above, we must first recognize that we need to "think" differently. We need move beyond the DSM paradigm and embrace a new paradigm; to facilitate a paradigm shift. An important first step is to name it as such.


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Reflections on the government shutdown: why is health care so threatening?

 I may be putting myself out on a bit of a limb here, but the draw of the blog makes it hard to sit silent while our country heads towards disaster.

As I listen helplessly to a report on NPR  about our country being in the grips of an irrational game of chicken, I found myself being curious about the motivations of the tea party conservatives. Drawing a lesson from psychoanalyst Peter Fonagy, who identifies the ability to attribute motivations to behavior as a uniquely human characteristic, I wonder if taking a stance of curiosity rather than anger might be useful.

This led me to consider another psychoanalytic construct, namely that of transference.  The tea party hardliners refer to Obamacare as an invasion of privacy. This idea is grotesquely depicted in the commercial showing a creepy Uncle Sam invading a gynecologic exam. Before he enters, the patient,  a young woman, is being cared for by what appears to be a kind, motherly doctor.

The notion of transference describes how strong feelings from a past relationship, often with a parent, find there way in to a current relationship. This phenomenon can occur in relationships with spouses, children, co-workers, in addition to the setting where Freud originally identified it, namely in the patient-therapist relationship.

In the intimacy and privacy of the patient-doctor relationship, such as that between a young woman and her female gynecologist, these type of transference feelings naturally occur. That made me wonder if to those who made the commercial, Obamacare, as represented by Uncle Sam, in some way represents a third invading the primary caregiver-child relationship. If so, that might help explain the intransigent behavior of those who are unable to accept that Obamacare, or the Affordable Care Act, is the law, and are willing to hold the country hostage rather than face that fact.

But Obamacare is not a threat to that intimate private relationship. In fact, if it works, and health care costs do go down, and insurance companies lose some of their power, it may in fact strengthen the relationship.  With increased emphasis on prevention, the healing power of the patient-doctor relationship might be brought in to better focus than under the current system, when doctors are forced to see more and more patients in less and less time.


Saturday, October 5, 2013

Mental illness and motherhood: lessons from Miriam Carey


We do not have medical records or diagnoses. The news is filled with speculation. What we do know is that Miriam Carey’s one-year-old daughter lost her mother, and that because the incident occurred in Washington D. C. in front of the White House, it is shining a spotlight on the subject of mental health and motherhood. And the message should be simple. Diagnoses don't matter. As part of our nation's health care system (another complex and fraught subject this week!) we must provide a safety net for mothers who are struggling emotionally in the weeks and months following the transition to motherhood.

Recently in my role as director of Newton-Wellesley Hospital’s Early Childhood Social Emotional Health program I have had the privilege of participating in a mother-baby group on a regular basis. During the 90 minute session, as these moms share feelings about such things as sleep deprivation, navigating new territory with a spouse, and going back to work, the babies cycle through sleep, alert interaction,  fussy periods, crying and feeding. These mothers, all of them doing this for the first time, intuitively guide their infants through multiple transitions while simultaneously engaging in meaningful conversation.

But it doesn’t always go well. Almost every session, there is a mother-baby pair who struggles. A baby may scream inconsolably, and his mother may leave, overwhelmed by helplessness and shame despite the reassurances from the other moms and group leaders.  A mother may break down in tears as she describes the way her own family is not supportive, and how alone she feels. The contrast between the easy attentiveness of the rest of the group, and the pain these mother-baby pairs are experiencing is striking. We expect motherhood to be a time of falling in love; a time of joy and bliss.  When it is not, the suffering can be profound.

There is nothing quite like the aloneness of mental health struggles in the setting of motherhood. I recall being startled by the story of  one mother in my behavioral pediatrics practice who had struggled with severe postpartum depression. She told me that she had experience relief when her father died when her daughter was about a year old. It was not that she didn’t love her father. But in sharing the grief with her mother and siblings, she no longer felt so terribly alone.

The Massachusetts Postpartum Depression Commission, led by Representative Ellen Story,  in collaboration with such organizations as MotherWoman and the Massachusetts Child Psychiatry Access Project, is working hard to provide a safety net for every mother-baby pair who is struggling in this way.

Through a combination of screening, support groups and a network of clinicians who are experienced in working with mothers and babies in the setting of perinatal emotional complications, the aim is to be able to identify and treat every one of these pairs.

This type of effort is also occurring on national level, through such organizations as the National Coalition of Maternal Mental Health. Perhaps the attention on the issue, due to the fact that an incident involving a car chase occurred on Capitol Hill, will give some meaning to Miriam Carey’s daughter’s loss.