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The SMART Moms Program: A Randomized Trial of the Impact of Stress Management on Perceived Stress and Cortisol in Low-Income Pregnant Women



Dysregulations in maternal hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal function and the end product, cortisol, have been associated with a heightened risk for stress-related health complications during pregnancy and post partum. Given the adverse health impact that maternal cortisol may have on expectant mothers and their infants, empirically-based prenatal interventions are needed to target optimal management of stress and its biological effects in at-risk pregnant women, a primary example of which is cognitive behavioral stress management (CBSM). This randomized-controlled trial examined the effects of a prenatal CBSM intervention on reduction in perceived stress and regulation of salivary cortisol patterns [i.e., overall cortisol output (area under the curve), cortisol awakening response (CAR), diurnal slope] during pregnancy and the early postpartum period, as compared to a control group.


One hundred low-income pregnant women (71% Latina; 76% annual income < $20 K) with low or high anxiety during pregnancy were randomized (stratified by anxiety) to either an eight-week CBSM group intervention (n = 55) or a control group (n = 45). They provided seven salivary cortisol samples (four am samples, 12 pm, 4 pm, and 8 pm samples on one collection day) at baseline (1st trimester; < 17 weeks of gestation), after their prenatal program (2nd trimester), and also in the third trimester and at three months post partum.


Women receiving CBSM had lower perceived stress levels throughout pregnancy and early post partum compared to women in the control group (p = .020). Among women with high prenatal anxiety, those in CBSM showed a steeper decline in their diurnal cortisol at three months post partum compared to those in the control group (p = .015). Further, non-Latina women in CBSM had a lower CAR at three months post partum compared to non-Latina women in the control group (p = .025); these randomization group differences on the CAR were not observed among Latina women.


These findings provide preliminary support for the efficacy of prenatal CBSM interventions in improving stress outcomes among low-income pregnant women and suggest the need to test the effects of these interventions on a larger scale for improving maternal and infant health outcomes long-term.

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