Research also shows a supportive spouse lowers cortisol levels in new moms
By Nicole Letourneau and Gerald Giesbrecht
CALGARY, AB/ Troy Media/ – It’s almost Father’s Day, a time when many of us reflect warmly on the role our fathers and grandfathers have played in our lives. It’s no secret that dads are important, and that their role as caregivers has, for many families, broadened in the last 50 years. But there’s one period of our development where dads tend to take a back seat – the first nine months, to be precise.
While still in the womb, babies are generally considered to be the mother’s domain. Fathers are often relegated to a small supporting role: they help around the house, maybe massage mom’s aching back, and cater to cravings, but ultimately they’re seen as just another observer. However, a growing body of research shows us that fathers can have a much deeper influence on their children in utero than previously expected.
Recently, we and several researchers conducted a study examining what effect support from spouses had on pregnant mothers’ responses to stress. To do this, we asked participating mothers a series of questions assessing the support they get from their husbands/partners: how much of it, how easily they provided it, and how effective it was at getting them through life’s challenges.
Next, we collected a series of saliva samples from mothers at various times of day. These samples provide a relatively non-intrusive way to measure levels of cortisol, a hormone generated by the body in times of stress. During collection periods, mothers answered more questions, these ones assessing their level of psychological distress, defined as feelings of anger, anxiety, depression or fatigue.
Through our data, we observed the relationship between the stress hormone cortisol and psychological distress. Sure enough, when mothers were distressed, their samples showed higher levels of cortisol – but only if they also scored low on measures of support from their partners. Moms with supportive spouses showed consistently low cortisol levels, regardless of how upset they may have been when the sample was taken.