For some women, pregnancy brings more than joy and excitement. It can also be a particularly vulnerable time for families with mental health and psychosocial problems, and the mother’s mental state can have significant consequences for the unborn child and its first few years of life.
Through a new research and development project, Amager and Hvidovre Hospital, The Mary Foundation, the Danish Center for Mindfulness and Østifterne aim to create a model that will enhance the support given to at-risk pregnant women and their partners. Entitled “Good start to family life”, the project aims to develop programmes based on each family’s needs and challenges that help the expectant parents to create a safe and stimulating environment for their new baby.
The key component of the project is the Family Clinic at Amager and Hvidovre Hospital – the largest maternity ward in Denmark. Every year, approximately 800 families receive care at the Family Clinic, which specialises in treating challenging patients affected by mental illness, social challenges, drug addiction, pain management problems, neglect, violence, stress and other challenges.
Michelle Kolls, Department Head and midwife at the Family Clinic, explained that pregnancy creates a significant development potential for the most at-risk families battling with social and mental health challenges.
“The earlier in their pregnancy an at-risk mother-to-be receives help and support, the greater the opportunity we have to work with the family’s resources to tackle early parenthood. At the Family Clinic, we find that many vulnerable expectant families are motivated to make changes and have a strong desire to create the best possible environment for their child. But we have also identified that we need to adopt a far more holistic and preventive approach and not just focus on the physical pregnancy if we are going to succeed in helping more children in at-risk families to get a good start in life,” said Michelle Kolls.
The Good start to family life project advances and strengthens the work already being carried out at the Family Clinic in Amager and Hvidovre Hospital. The upskilling of social workers and health professionals at the Family Clinic will equip them with even more tools to recognise, support and advise expectant families who need extra care.
The families will also be offered new services. The partners behind the project aim to develop group sessions that will enhance the families’ understanding of their own challenges with respect to stress, anxiety, addiction, etc., and increase their insight into how the mother’s condition can impact the child and parenthood. The parents-to-be will also be offered mindfulness training as a tool to stabilise and strengthen their mental health.
“Mindfulness training can help at-risk pregnant parents to be a loving and authentic presence in their new baby’s life. To be capable of this, parents need to be able to connect with themselves. This applies to both the good and the challenging sides that all parents have. Mindfulness is a method that helps individuals to connect with themselves and others in a positive way, and to enhance their awareness, mood, empathy and resilience, while also reducing stress and anxiety,” said Lone Fjorback, Center Director and Chief Physician at the Danish Center for Mindfulness at Aarhus University.
Pregnancy can trigger violence
Most of the pregnant women referred to the Family Clinic are affected by mental health problems or drug abuse. Their midwives often find that domestic violence poses an additional challenge for many of these families.
“The anticipation of a new baby can trigger or escalate violence in the family – even before the birth. Despite the fact that we know violence against pregnant women can have severe repercussions for the unborn child, there is no current model that routinely screens pregnant women for domestic violence in Denmark today. That’s why we are collaborating with Dialogue against Violence to develop a model for identifying violence among all pregnant women, with the aim of creating a programme at the Family Clinic that will provide support and guidance to families affected by violence,”
said Helle Østergaard, Director of The Mary Foundation.
The Good start to family life project will run until the summer of 2024, at which point the aim is to have established a tried and tested model to be implemented at the Family Clinic. The programme will offer at-risk pregnant women and their partners knowledge and practical tools that will make them aware of their own challenges, resources and actionable options, and will support them in breaking bad habits and coping with life as new parents. The model and methods developed must be transferable to the support offered to at-risk pregnant women in other regions.
“When we invest in the health and well-being of at-risk pregnant women, we also invest in the health and well-being of future generations. We hope that the Good start to family life project can help break negative patterns that lead to stagnation and intergenerational disadvantage. In five years’ time, we hope to have developed a model that enhances our ability to help at-risk families to an even greater extent and is scalable and transferable to clinics throughout Denmark,” said Lars Suhr Olsen, Director of Østifterne, one of the promoters and financial partners in the project.