by Amy Whitesall, Published July 25, 2011
EMU psychology professor Alissa Huth-Bocks has been named the second winner of the Hiram E. Fitzgerald Emerging Scholar/Researcher Award, given by the Michigan Association for Infant Mental Health to honor up-and-coming researchers who are dedicated to enhancing the quality of life for infants, young children, and their families.
The award recognizes Huth-Bocks' work with expectant mothers, which has yielded interesting and useful information about how their feelings during pregnancy can affect their babies' well-being after birth.
In 2007 Huth-Bocks started a four-year longitudinal study of 120 high-risk women recruited through public assistance programs and community health clinics. Huth-Bocks and a fleet of EMU graduate and undergraduate students interviewed the women at different points during their pregnancy and after their children were born. Students spent hours in the women's homes, getting to know them, their children and their circumstances. Many stayed with the study as volunteers after graduation, helping to compile a rich set of data that will help psychologists help high-risk moms.
The study found that many mothers whose own backgrounds include violence, abuse, neglect or addiction feel pessimistic about the future, and that this anxiety can have a profound effect on their children.
"They feel helpless, overwhelmed; they may have mental health difficulties or negative thoughts about the baby," Huth-Bocks said. "At that point it's all psychological. It's amazing, really, that before there's any observable baby out in the world, just the way the mother thinks about how the baby will be has this amazing predictive power. The way the mother thinks and feels drives the way she reacts, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."
Huth-Bocks' work can help public health professionals get more bang for their intervention buck by identifying factors - like moms' thoughts and feelings during pregnancy - that loom large in later development.
"A lot of public care takes place in pregnancy," Huth-Bocks said. "We needed to know where to intervene. These are families that have a bazillion strikes against them, and it's hard to know what you can do to help them. Where can you make the biggest impact with intervention? I would argue that the earlier we can intervene the more we can permanently alter the neurobiology of the baby and the better off the child and family will be."
"We can identify important risk factors before a baby is born," Huth-Bocks says. "Our data are supporting ideas that can predict how a baby will develop and the mother's long-term relationship with the baby."
"I think a lot of her work, and I think it has a lot of relevance to clinical settings," said psychology professor Ken Rusiniak, noting the appropriateness of Huth-Bocks' award. "Alissa is one of our stars."