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Ololade Okito

Parents of older, healthier newborns with less social support less resilient

Ololade Okito

“We know that having a child hospitalized in the NICU can be a high-stress time for families,” says Ololade Okito, M.D., lead author of the cross-sectional study. “The good news is that as parental resiliency scores rise, we see a correlation with fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Parents of older, healthier newborns who had less social support were less resilient during their child’s hospitalization in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), a finding that correlates with more symptoms of depression and anxiety, according to Children’s research presented during the Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting.

Resiliency is the natural born, yet adaptable ability of people to bounce back in the face of significant adversity. Published research indicates that higher resilience is associated with reduced psychological distress, but the phenomenon had not been studied extensively in parents of children hospitalized in a NICU.

“We know that having a child hospitalized in the NICU can be a high-stress time for families,” says Ololade Okito, M.D., lead author of the cross-sectional study. “The good news is that as parental resiliency scores rise, we see a correlation with fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety. Parents who feel they have good family support also have higher resilience scores.”

The project is an offshoot of a larger study examining the impact of peer mentoring by other NICU parents who have experienced the same emotional rollercoaster ride as their tiny infants sometimes thrived and other times struggled.

The research team enrolled 35 parents whose newborns were 34 weeks gestation and younger and administered a battery of validated surveys, including:

Forty percent of these parents had high resilience scores; parents whose infants were a mean of 27.3 gestational weeks and who had more severe health challenges reported higher resilience. Another 40% of these parents had elevated depressive symptoms, while 31% screened positive for anxiety. Parental distress impairs the quality of parent-child interactions and long-term child development, the research team writes.

“Higher NICU-related stress correlates with greater symptoms of depression and anxiety in parents,” says Lamia Soghier, M.D., MEd, medical director of Children’s neonatal intensive care unit and the study’s senior author. “Specifically targeting interventions to these parents may help to improve their resilience, decrease the stress of parenting a child in the NICU and give these kids a healthier start to life.”

Pediatric Academic Societies 2019 Annual Meeting presentation

  • “Parental resilience and psychological distress in the neonatal intensive care unit (PARENT) study”
    • Tuesday, April 30, 2019, 7:30 a.m. (EST)

Ololade Okito, M.D., lead author; Yvonne Yui, M.D., co-author; Nicole Herrera, MPH, co-author; Randi Streisand, Ph.D., chief, Division of Psychology and Behavioral Health, and co-author; Carrie Tully, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and co-author; Karen Fratantoni, M.D., MPH, medical director, Complex Care Program, and co-author; and Lamia Soghier, M.D., MEd, medical unit director, neonatal intensive care unit, and senior author; all of Children’s National.

new mom with baby

Fighting perinatal mood and anxiety disorders on multiple levels

new mom with baby

Over the past several decades, it’s become increasingly recognized that perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs), including postpartum depression, are more than just “baby blues.” They’re the most common complication of childbirth in the U.S., affecting about 14 percent of women in their lifetimes and up to 50 percent in some specific populations. PMADs can lead to a variety of adverse outcomes for both mothers and their babies, including poor breastfeeding rates, poor maternal-infant bonding, lower infant immunization rates and maternal suicides that account for up to 20 percent of postpartum deaths.

But while it’s obvious that PMADs are a significant problem, finding a way to solve this issue is far from clear. In a policy statement published December 2018 in the journal Pediatrics, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that pediatric medical homes coordinate more effectively with prenatal providers to ensure PMAD screening occurs for new mothers at well-child checkups throughout the first several weeks and months of infancy and use community resources and referrals to ensure women suffering with these disorders receive follow-up treatment.

To help solve the huge issue of PMADs requires a more comprehensive approach, suggests Lenore Jarvis, M.D., MEd, an emergency medicine specialist at Children’s National Health System. A poster that Dr. Jarvis and colleagues from Children’s Perinatal Mental Health Taskforce recently presented at the American Academy of Pediatrics 2018 National Convention and Exhibit in Orlando, Florida, details the integrated care to help women with PMADs that originated at Children’s National and is being offered at several levels, including individual, interpersonal, organizational, community and policy. The poster was ranked best in its section for the Council on Early Childhood.

At the base level of care for mothers with possible PMADs, Dr. Jarvis says, are the one-on-one screenings that take place in primary care clinics. Currently, all five of Children’s primary care clinics screen for mental health concerns at annual visits. At the 2-week, 1-, 2-, 4- and 6-month visits, mothers are screened for PMADs using the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale, a validated tool that’s long been used to gauge the risk of postpartum depression. In addition, recent studies at Children’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and emergency department (ED) suggest that performing PMAD screenings in these settings as well could help catch even more women with these disorders: About 45 percent of parents had a positive screen for depression at NICU discharge, and about 27 percent of recent mothers had positive screens for PMADs in the ED.

To further these efforts, Children’s National recently started a Perinatal Mental Health Taskforce to promote multidisciplinary collaboration and open communication with providers among multiple hospital divisions. This taskforce is working together to apply lessons learned from screening in primary care, the NICU and the ED to discuss best practices and develop hospital-wide recommendations. They’re also sharing their experiences with hospitals across the country to help them develop best practices for helping women with PMADs at their own institutions.

Furthering its commitment to PMAD screening, Children’s National leadership set a goal of increasing screening in primary care by 15 percent for fiscal year 2018 – then exceeded it. Children’s National is also helping women with PMADs far outside the hospital’s walls by developing a PMAD screening toolkit for other providers in Washington and across the country and by connecting with community partners through the DC Collaborative for Mental Health in Pediatric Primary Care. In April 2019, the hospital will host a regional perinatal mental health conference that not only will include its own staff but also staff from other local hospitals and other providers who care for new mothers, including midwives, social workers, psychologists, community health workers and doulas.

Finally, on a federal level, Dr. Jarvis and colleagues are part of efforts to obtain additional resources for PMAD screening, referral and treatment. They successfully advocated for Congress to fully fund the Screening and Treatment for Maternal Depression program, part of the 21st Century Cures Act. And locally, they provided testimony to help establish a task force to address PMADs in Washington.

Together, Dr. Jarvis says, these efforts are making a difference for women with PMADs and their families.

“All this work demonstrates that you can take a problem that is very personal, this individual experience with PMADS, and work together with a multidisciplinary team in collaboration to really have an impact and promote change across the board,” she adds.

In addition to Dr. Jarvis, the lead author, Children’s co-authors include Penelope Theodorou, MPH; Sarah Barclay Hoffman, MPP, Program Manager, Child Health Advocacy Institute; Melissa Long, M.D.; Lamia Soghier M.D., MEd, NICU Medical Unit Director; Karen Fratantoni M.D., MPH; and Senior Author Lee Beers, M.D., Medical Director, Municipal and Regional Affairs, Child Health Advocacy Institute.

Lenore Jarvis

Screening for postpartum depression in the emergency department

Lenore Jarvis

“Some of these women had no idea how common postpartum depression was,” says Lenore Jarvis, M.D., M.Ed. “They thought they were crazy and felt alone and were bad moms.”

It’s a scenario that Children’s emergency medicine specialist Lenore Jarvis, M.D., M.Ed., has seen countless times: A mother brings her infant to the emergency department (ED) in the middle of the night with a chief complaint of the baby being fussy. Nothing she does can stop the incessant crying, she tells the triage nurse. When doctors examine the baby, they don’t see anything wrong. Often, this finding is reassuring. But, despite their best efforts to comfort her, the mother isn’t reassured and leaves the hospital feeling anxious and overwhelmed.

After these encounters, Dr. Jarvis wondered: Might the mother be the actual patient?

Postpartum depression (PPD) is the most common complication of childbirth, Dr. Jarvis explains, occurring in up to 20 percent of all mothers, and may be higher (up to 50 percent) in low-income and immigrant women. Far beyond simple “baby blues,” the mood disorder can have significant implications for the mother, her baby and the entire family. It can hinder mother-child bonding and lead to early discontinuation of breastfeeding, delayed immunizations, and child abuse and neglect. The associated effects on early brain development might cause cognitive and developmental delays for the infant and, later in life, can manifest as emotional and behavioral problems. PPD can disrupt relationships between parents. And suicide is the top cause of postpartum death.

Mothers are supposed to be screened routinely for PPD at postpartum visits with their maternal or pediatric health care providers. In addition, several medical professional societies – including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists – now recommend screening for PPD in the prenatal and postnatal periods and during routine well-child visits in the outpatient setting. But these screenings often don’t happen, Dr. Jarvis says, either because doctors aren’t following the recommendations or parents aren’t attending these visits due to barriers to health care access or other problems.

One way to sidestep these challenges, she says, is to provide PPD screening in the emergency setting.

“The ED becomes the safety net for people who are not routinely accessing regular checkups for themselves and their children,” Dr. Jarvis says. “If a mother is having an acute crisis in the middle of the night and feeling anxious and depressed, they often come to the emergency department for help.”

Dr. Jarvis and colleagues launched a pilot study in the Children’s ED to screen for PPD. For eight months beginning June 2015, the researchers invited English- and Spanish-speaking mothers who arrived at the ED with infants 6 months old or younger with complaints that didn’t necessitate immediate emergency care to take a short questionnaire on a computer tablet. This questionnaire included the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale, a well-validated tool to screen for PPD, along with basic sociodemographic questions and queries about risk factors that other studies previously identified for PPD.

Just over half agreed to participate. When Dr. Jarvis and colleagues analyzed the results from these 209 mothers, they found that 27 percent scored positive for PPD, more than the average from previous estimates. Fourteen of those mothers reported having suicidal thoughts. Surprisingly, nearly half of participants reported that they’d never been screened previously for PPD, despite standing recommendations for routine screenings at mother and baby care visits, the research team writes in findings published online May 5, 2018, in Pediatric Emergency Care.

Based on the screening results, the researchers implemented a range of interventions. All mothers who participated in the study received an informational booklet from the March of Dimes on PPD. If mothers scored positive, they also received a local PPD resource handout and were offered a consultation with a social worker. Those with a strongly positive score were required to receive a social worker consultation and were given the option of “warm-line” support to PPD community partners, a facilitated connection to providers who offer individual or group therapy or home visits, or to a psychiatrist who might prescribe medication. Mothers with suicidal thoughts were assessed by a physician and assisted by crisis intervention services, if needed.

When the researchers followed up with mothers who screened positive one month later, an overwhelming majority said that screening in the ED was important and that the resources they were given had been key for finding help. Many commented that even the screening process seemed like a helpful intervention.

“Some of these women had no idea how common PPD was. They thought they were crazy and felt alone and were bad moms,” Dr. Jarvis says. “For someone to even ask about PPD made these women aware that this exists, and it’s something people care about.”

Many thanked her and colleagues for the follow-up call, she adds, saying that it felt good to be cared for and checked on weeks later. “It goes to show that putting support systems in place for these new mothers is very important,” she says.

Dr. Jarvis and ED colleagues are currently collaborating with social workers, neonatology and other Children’s National Health System care partners to start screening mothers in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and ED for PPD. They plan to compare results generated by this universal screening to those in their study. These findings will help researchers better understand the prevalence of PPD in mothers with higher triage acuity levels and how general rates of PPD for mothers in the ED and NICU compare with those generated in past studies based on well-child checks. Eventually, she says, they would like to study whether the interventions they prescribed affected the known consequences of PPD, such as breastfeeding,  timely immunization rates and behavior outcomes.

“With appropriate care and resources,” Dr. Jarvis adds, “we’re hoping to improve the lives of these women and their families.”

In addition to Dr. Jarvis, the lead study author, Children’s co-authors include Kristen A. Breslin, M.D., M.P.H.; Gia M. Badolato, M.P.H.; James M. Chamberlain, M.D.; and Monika K. Goyal, M.D., MSCE, the study’s senior author.