Fascinating research at the Yale School of Medicine shows that in poor families who are under-resourced and overburdened (a more meaningful phrase replacing "high-risk,") "diaper need" or lack of reliable access to clean diapers, is the factor that most impacts on mothers' mental health. In a study published in Pediatrics, lead researcher Megan Smith found that 30% of mothers living in poverty report diaper need.
When mothers were worried about when they would be able to get the next diaper, self esteem was diminished in the face of their inability to soothe their baby, in turn negatively impacting their relationship with their baby, setting the stage for a downward spiral.
One take home message of this research is the importance of providing clean diapers. The National Diaper Bank Network, along with many local organizations, is making efforts to meet this significant need.
A second broader implication is the remarkable finding of how much the baby's well being impacts on the mother's mental health.
The converse of the finding that diaper need negatively impacts a mother's mental health, is that reliable access to clean diapers can improve a mother's mental health.
Generalizing this observation to a broader population of mothers with mental illness, the ability to soothe a baby, to take care of a baby's basic needs, may be integral to that mother's emotional well being. For that reason, the baby's behavior, including excessive crying, feeding issues, sleep issues should be an integral part of treatment of postpartum mental illness.
Traditionally treatment of postpartum depression focuses on the mother, often in the form of medication, but also support groups and psychotherapy. The baby's behavior is addressed separately, usually by a pediatrician. Innovative programs such as the Infant Behavior, Cry and Sleep clinic in Rhode Island explore the relational nature of these problems.
In a recent talk at the Austen Riggs Center Smith described a brochure addressing the question that many mothers ask- how can I prevent my baby from experiencing the effects of mental illness? Much of Smith's audience laughed at the brochures recommendations: "establish good relationships," reduce conflict," help with anxiety."
For families struggling to obtain life's basic necessities, these suggestions are laughable but certainly not funny. But for any family where a mother is struggling with mental illness, these goals may be unattainable without significant help.
In the new MCPAP for Moms program, a statewide initiative to improve identification and treatment for mothers who are struggling with perinatal emotional complications, efforts are being made to incorporate treatment of the mother and infant together. Supporting a mother's efforts to effectively soothe and feed her baby by helping her to make sense of her baby's unique qualities and communications, is an integral part of preventing the negative impact of maternal mental illness on child development. A positive cycle of interaction can be set in place. This innovative research on diaper need offers evidence for the wisdom of this direction.