Parenting Class Helps Babies Even Before Birth

A new study shows that the positive psychological effects of a specific prenatal class on moms lead to better birth outcomes and relationships between new parents.

Parenting Class Helps Babies Even Before Birth ChameleonsEye/

If you're thinking about skipping those time-consuming prenatal classes—you know the ones, where the dad sits behind the mom as she pretends to go into labor?—you might want to reconsider. A new study published in Maternal and Child Health Journal showed that attending parenting classes actually improved the birth outcomes of babies whose moms were stressed, anxious or depressed.

The researchers looked at almost 400 couples who had either took a series of parenting classes (five prenatal and four after birth), or had literature mailed to them. Participation in a class program was linked to better birth weight for babies and shorter hospital stays after birth for moms-to-be who had some level of stress, depression or anxiety. "We think what happens is that the program enhances support from the partner, which reduces depressive symptoms, which leads to better birth outcomes," study author Mark Feinberg, Ph.D., a research professor at Penn State, tells Fit Pregnancy.

Couples therapy

The class program the study reviewed, called Family Foundations, was developed ten years ago by Feinberg to help moms and dads-to-be deal with the sometimes difficult transition to parenthood. "In the program, couples learn new ways to support each other and to prepare for the big step of becoming parents together," Feinberg says. "For women who were stressed, anxious or depressed, and thus were at risk for poor birth outcomes, the improved relationship with the partner and better psychological well-being may have allowed the pregnancy to proceed along a healthier path."

Feinberg says the classes' positive benefit to birth outcomes was a happy accident. "This was very surprising," he says. "Only in the past few years has women's psychological well-being been linked to birth outcomes, so we would never have thought to look at birth outcomes as a result of this program if not for that. And we would not have thought that only a few classes about how parents support each other would change something as biologically rooted as birth outcomes."

Not your average prenatal class

Because this study only assessed the Family Foundations program, it's unclear whether other prenatal classes might have the same effect. "At times, some programs can even make things worse—for example, if not handled right, a class can increase couple conflict by raising difficult issues but not teaching the skills to resolve them," Feinberg says. Those skills include how to work through disagreements, parent as a team, and how to use positive parenting techniques like patience and warmth.

Experts agree that this is not a typical childbirth class. "Family Foundations is unique because it focuses on the relationship between the two parents, rather than on each parent's relationship with the child," Amy Lewin, Psy.D., a professor in the University of Maryland School of Public Health's Department of Family Science, tells Fit Pregnancy. "An impressive amount of research has found that it does significantly improve the quality of the co-parenting relationship, which has important benefits for mothers' and fathers' well-being, and children's development. This recent study is very exciting because it is the first to show that a program to strengthen co-parenting can also affect birth outcomes."

Previous research on Family Foundations has shown more benefits for kids. "This program has reduced levels of cesarean births, demonstrated long-term reductions in behavior problems in children at age 3 and in internalizing problems at ages 6-7," Sharon Milhalic, director of Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development, a project at the University of Colorado Boulder that reviews child and family programs, tells Fit Pregnancy.

Family Foundations is now being implemented by the Department of Defense for military families, and the researchers are working to bring it to the general public as well. In the meantime, if you don't think your local prenatal class is up to snuff, you can order Family Foundations DVDs through their website. "We think couples' better supporting each other has an enormous influence on women's well-being and sense of security," Feinberg says. "We're constantly learning about the power of close relationships to influence our health, and for pregnant women, the relationship with the partner appears to be incredibly important."