A new study in Denmark demonstrated a 33% increased risk of a range of psychiatric disorders in children whose mothers were treated for infertility. The authors do not offer a cause, but postulate that the increased risk is related not to the treatments, but to the infertility itself.
These findings echo research showing increased risk of psychiatric problems in children whose mothers have struggled with perinatal emotional complications such as anxiety and depression.
How can we make sense of this?
Mental health, including the capacity for emotional regulation, empathy, resourceful thinking and resilience, develops in relationships. So the answer to this question lies in the way infertility impacts on parent-child relationships.
I recently came upon a beautiful expression in a work of literature that captures pediatrician D.W. Winnicott’s concept of primary maternal preoccupation, that he identifies as central to a child’s healthy emotional development.
The book is James Agee’s A Death in the Family. In this early scene, the father is awakened during the night because his father is ill. As he dresses to leave the house, his wife, on her way downstairs to make him breakfast, whispers to him to bring his shoes in to the kitchen.
“He watched her disappear, wondering what in hell she meant by that, and was suddenly taken with a snort of silent amusement. She looked so deadly serious, about the shoes. God, the ten thousand little things every day that a woman kept thinking of, on account of children. Hardly even thinking, he thought to himself as he pulled on his other sock. Practically automatic. Like breathing.”
The experience of infertility may get in the way of this breathing. Without appropriate support, a mother may feel that she is suffocating.
A mother, and also a father who, while not experiencing the physical assaults of infertility treatments, certainly shares in the emotional trauma, may come to the experience of parenthood with a range of significant vulnerabilities.
Anxiety over the well being of a new baby, no matter how much reassurance well meaning clinicians offer, may be unrelenting. In the face of repeated loss, as occurs in the process of infertility treatment, not only with every period, but sometimes with early pregnancy loss, may lead a parent to, in an adaptive effort to protect themselves from further loss, disengage emotionally. A parent may not fully surrender to the falling in love that accompanies the birth of a baby. And parents may be simply emotionally exhausted.
The baby also may have a role to play. There is evidence that stress in pregnancy, as is almost inevitable in a pregnancy that follows infertility treatments, is associated with what is termed “behavioral dysregulation” in the baby. That is, the baby may be more difficult to feed, may cry more or have irregular sleep patterns.
The good news is that, having identified infertility as a risk factor in development of mental illness, there is ample opportunity to set these vulnerable parent-baby pairs on a healthy path. One option is suggested in a recent article in the Atlantic, How Supportive Parenting Protects the Brain, where the possible role of the pediatrician is addressed.
What if every parent-baby pair, in the aftermath of infertility treatment, got some extra time and attention? An extra hour-long visit-with clinicians reimbursed for their time- to meet with parent and baby together, to listen to them both? Even better, as pediatricians have variable interest/expertise in this kind of work, have an infant mental health specialist, physically located in the pediatrician’s office. The Newborn Behavioral Observation system is a wonderful tool for listening to parent and baby together in a way that sets development on a healthy path.
The idea is to normalize, rather than stigmatize.
This study might cause alarm for parents who are already stressed by the process of infertility treatment. I was alarmed myself by the statement by one of the study’s authors that “this knowledge should be balanced against the physical and psychological benefits of pregnancy.” To even entertain the idea of not getting pregnant because of this potential risk to the child is absurd, and feels almost punishing.
But if instead we use this study as further evidence of the value of protecting space and time to listen to parents and babies, then alarm could be transformed in to hope.