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Pets & Prams: Do Pets Play a Role in Maternal Wellbeing?



May is a key month in the mental health awareness campaigns calendar with Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week and Mental Health Awareness Week taking place back to back this year. To mark both, we invited EMH members to share some of their latest research findings. In this blog, Kathyrn Cyr and Roxanne Hawkins discuss the insights gleaned from their study into the role of pets in contributing to maternal wellbeing, a fascinating but little-understood topic in the field of mental health research.


 

A quick search of “family pet” brings up idyllic images of smiling parents, children, and dogs wearing bandanas. Yet while 77% of UK households with children have a pet, little is understood about the actual role of or relationship with pets during a key transitional moment for families: the perinatal period.


The perinatal period spans pregnancy and the first year of a child’s life, and is a critical time for infant socioemotional development, as well as being when one in five new mothers are at risk for developing a mental health condition. Human-animal bond (HAB) research has demonstrated that pets can be both a boon and risk for owners’ mental health, and that pets can support children in their psychological development. How furry friends can support – or hinder – wellbeing for new parents and babies is an area deserving of further study, with implications for potentially millions of families with pets.


An exploratory study by Kathryn Cyr and Dr Roxanne Hawkins at the University of Edinburgh gathered online qualitative responses from 31 new mothers who owned cats and dogs in the UK. The survey focused on how mothers felt pets influenced their perinatal wellbeing, the impact of a new family member on pets, and implications for pet attachment between mothers and infants, respectively. Using thematic analysis, the team constructed key themes from open-ended responses that demonstrated the benefits and risks of pets for wellbeing, attachment, and pet welfare. Key themes included (1) promoting wellbeing and grounding in a time of change, (2) pets as preparation for parenting, (3) caregiver burden, (4) joy and challenges of pet–baby interactions, and (5) perceptions of changing pet behaviour in the perinatal period.


From the above themes, several key takeaways were identified. First, the glowing photos of bandanaed animals and smiling mums so easily found online may have some truth to them: surveyed mothers felt that pets provided nonjudgemental socioemotional support during the perinatal transition, especially important as early motherhood can be isolating, and social networks are subject to significant change. Second, pets and babies did seem capable of creating a bond through play, mealtimes, and cuddles, which mothers reported brought them a sense of second-hand joy. A final benefit detailed by respondents was increased confidence and reduced anxiety regarding parenting because they felt they had ‘parenting practice’ through having a pet first.


However, the picture isn’t all rosy. Many new parents had anxieties before the baby was born that the animal and baby may hurt one another, or that a pet might carry germs that harm a child. Post-birth, many mothers expressed that the dual caregiving requirements of a pet and baby could feel overwhelming, leading to reduced care and attention for the pet, feelings of guilt, and even thoughts of rehoming an animal. Additionally, while pets may provide support and love for mums and babies, some pets became more distant with parents and avoided the baby, which caused mothers distress. Moreover, behaviours such as loud barking and meowing (especially if it woke the baby), perceived neediness, and high energy were stressful for mothers while juggling an infant.


Research demonstrates that parents’ approach to having a pet alongside a baby could mitigate these fears and issues: enforcing routines for animals, allowing a gradual introduction between baby and pet, creating safe spaces for pet and baby within the home, and asking for caregiving support, all improved a mother’s sense of wellbeing in the perinatal period and can help ensure a pet’s welfare. Several times over, parents expressed that better guidance and support about what changes to expect in the perinatal period and how to safely manage pets alongside a new baby would have been extremely helpful. While this exploratory study only begins to uncover the lived experiences of new mothers with pets, the aim is for this research to inspire further investigation, as well as practical guidance for parents with pets. A better understanding of pets’ influence and needs in the perinatal period could help new parents confidently create a nurturing environment for all family members.


To learn more about the work and future directions, read the full study here.


 

Authors: Kathyrn Cyr & Roxanne Hawkins



Kathryn Cyr is a Family Wellbeing Practitioner at Stepping Stones North Edinburgh, offering emotional and practical support to parents in the Muirhouse/Pilton area of Edinburgh. As an honorary research assistant at the University of Edinburgh, she is interested in the environmental factors of maternal mental health, attachment, and social support, including companion animals.



Roxanne Hawkins is a Lecturer in Clinical and Health Psychology at the University of Edinburgh. Her research primarily focuses on the mental health implications of interactions with animals across the lifespan, perinatal mental health, and the role of animals within child development. She also investigates the links between adversity (e.g., domestic abuse, childhood abuse) and cruelty to animals with a focus on prevention and intervention, working closely with external organisations such as animal welfare charities

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