The arrival of a newborn can be stressful for all new parents, but may be especially so for those in the military. On top of sleep deprivation and being responsible for an infant 24 hours a day, military parents can experience the additional stress of deployment, frequent moves and uncertainty about the future.
A new study found that an online class for military families expecting their first child, developed by a Penn State professor, helped improve new parents’ stress and mental health, couples’ teamwork and support around parenting, and infant well-being.
“We are proud to support military and civilian families,” said Mark Feinberg, senior researcher at Penn State’s Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center and developer of the Family Foundations program. “I grew up on an Air Force base in Ohio, and so I wanted to give something back to the military community. And this has broader implications for all of us, as promoting military readiness depends in part on enhancing military family resilience. The military itself views this as a matter of national security.”
According to the researchers, Family Foundations is a training program for expectant couples that is designed to reduce parental stress and mental health problems by helping couples work together smoothly as parents.
“In order to support parenting teamwork – also called coparenting – in military families, it was important for us to create an online version of the program,” Feinberg said, “which features interactive lessons designed to promote warmth, nurturing and stability in the family.”
Feinberg led a pilot randomized trial of the online program with 56 couples in the U.S. Army, Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy, with 29 of the couples participating in the program. Using pre-test data from pregnancy and post-test data from six months after birth, positive program effects were found for parent depression, mothers’ report of coparenting support, and infant mood and soothability, as reported in the journal Family Relations.
The original Family Foundations program, developed by Feinberg with funding from the National Institutes for Health, is a series of prenatal and postnatal classes. The program provides expectant parents with the opportunity to practice self-calming and relationship problem-solving tools and strategies before the baby arrives, and supports parents in refining these skills after the baby has come home.
Previously, the intervention was evaluated in two randomized trials with civilian couples, and found to be effective in reducing postpartum depression, enhancing parent teamwork, better parenting quality, less family aggression, and better child outcomes from infancy through at least age seven.
In addition to the original class series and the online version, the program has been adapted for and is being tested with federal funding for teen parents in schools, poor parents in home visits, parents who use high levels of alcohol, and parents who have a young child just diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. The Coparenting Relationship Scale, a tool developed by Feinberg and colleagues and used in the Family Foundations study to measure coparenting quality, has been adapted for use in 18 countries.
Jesse Boring of SUNY Broome Community College, and Jennifer Karre, Jamie Irvin, Yunying Le, Michelle Hostetler and Damon Jones, all of Penn State, also participated in this work.
The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Development helped support this work, as well as the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center.