Improving the postnatal outcomes of new mothers


  • Carol Morse BSc PhD Econ SRN CM MEdPsych MAPS,

  • Sarah Durkin PGDip(Psych),

  • Anne Buist MD FRANZCP,

  • Jeanette Milgrom PhD FAPS

Carol Morse,
Faculty of Human Development,
Victoria University,
PO Box 14428,
Melbourne City, MC 8001,


Background.  Postnatal depression persists worldwide as a troubling issue for many new mothers and their families. The practice of early discharge within 72 hours after birth from maternity hospitals in Australia requires community-based care of new mothers, typically provided by community midwives initially, and then by maternal and child health nurses (MCHN). This latter workforce encounters the onset of distress/depression in vulnerable women and is expected to manage their care, but their training does not equip sufficiently them to do this.

Aims.  The aim of the study was to evaluate the effectiveness of brief training for MCHN in early detection and effective management of mildly distressed new mothers.

Methods.  A controlled comparative longitudinal study was carried out with a group of first-time mothers recruited through antenatal clinics at four major hospitals in a large Australian city. Forty MCHN were allocated to the intervention group. Those in the intervention group received training in the identification and management of distressed mothers. Intervention group nurses also had access to a liaison psychiatric network for consultation and referrals. Other nurses were allocated to the control group, which provided standard management services to new mothers in their catchment areas. Mothers’ outcomes in psychological and psychosocial functioning were assessed; comparing those cared for by the nurses who had received the intervention with those cared for by standard practices. Mothers’ satisfaction with the maternal and child health nurse services was also assessed.

Results.  Levels of distress peaked in early pregnancy in both groups and reduced over the study period. Rates and group levels of psychological distress and psychosocial functioning did not differ over time between mothers receiving care from the enhanced trained nurses and those receiving standard care. Differential group findings were apparent in attrition, with the more distressed mothers withdrawing from the control group and the less distressed withdrawing from the intervention group. Satisfaction with maternal and child health nurse services was high in both groups. Limitations of the study included events occurring while the study was in progress, such as staffing upheaval and unrest following the introduction of compulsory competitive tendering requirements, heavy workloads and the concurrent introduction of computerized case records that required the rapid familiarization with computer usage.

Conclusions.  Findings indicate that the extra training of MCHN did not substantially assist in the detection and management of postnatal distress in these new mothers. Unexpected ecological conditions of workforce disruption and extra workloads may have mitigated against the success of the programme. Limitations of the study are examined and the implications for future research are discussed.