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University of Wollongong (UOW) researchers have found major gaps in the understanding of mental health and mother-to-baby bonding during pregnancy and the period following it.

The study calls for further research to enable at-risk mothers and babies to be identified early during pregnancy and postpartum.

According to the study, one in five mothers experience mental health problems during pregnancy and within the first two years after childbirth.

Only a small percentage of women struggling with mental health difficulties receive treatment, which can have long term negative effects for both mother and baby.

UOW researchers conducted a systematic review of 25 studies involving almost 6,000 women aged 16-45 years across Australia, Asia, Europe and North America.

“We wanted to determine whether a relationship exists between pregnant women’s mental health and maternal fetal attachment (MFA), essentially the emotional bond between mum and baby,” UOW lead researcher and PhD candidate Josie McNamara said.

“We found good evidence that bonding will be stronger for women who don’t suffer from depression and who receive strong partner and social support. However, researchers still don’t fully understand the way in which maternal bonding is related to other domains such as maternal anxiety, stress and wellbeing.”

Ms McNamara said one of the difficulties was that researchers couldn’t agree on how to define MFA or how it should be measured.

“We found seven different names being used to describe the concept of MFA, and 12 different screening tools for assessing it within our review.”

More studies are required that span pregnancy and postpartum to better understand the role maternal mental health plays in the developing relationship between mother and baby, Ms McNamara said.

Her current PhD research at the Wollongong Infant Learning Lab involves 122 local women from the Wollongong Hospital antenatal clinic.

It is aiming to improve the quality of mental healthcare provided to pregnant women in Wollongong, across Australia and around the world.

The research was published in open-access journal PLOS ONE.