A woman holding a glass of alcohol while reading a book. you cannot see the person's face, and there is a blurred fireplace in the background.

Taking the anxiety out of the 'wine mum' culture

18 June 2024
Project Profile: Healthy Mum, Healthy Bub
‘Wine mum’ culture is a phenomenon rising from a growing reliance on alcohol to manage anxiety after having a child, says new Healthy Mum, Healthy Bub research project.

Raising the next generation is considered a joyous, rewarding and meaningful experience for many parents, but can also be full of uncertainty, demands and change. Due to the transitional nature, pregnancy and raising a baby can have profound effects on mental health, and without proper support, many turn to alcohol to manage.  

In Australia, one in six mothers have reported drinking alcohol at ‘risky’ levels in the first 12 months of their baby’s life. Anxiety and stress are the leading contributors to this behaviour, particularly due to the pressures of raising a child whilst also maintaining work, household management, familial, social and romantic relationships.  

logo for Healthy Mum, Healthy Bub. It is a line drawing of a mother holding her child, with the words healthy mum healthy bub written around it.

Helping women take the load off and reduce their anxiety and alcohol use not only helps the mother with their mental health but has been shown to support the child’s development. While there are existing programs for maternal mental health, there are currently no evidence-based programs to give new mothers resources to address anxiety, drinking, and the reasons for drinking (i.e. to cope) among mothers in the early stages of motherhood.

Until now.  

Healthy Mum, Healthy Bub is currently being co-designed with mothers to help inform how to deliver evidence-based resources in a way that is accessible, time-savvy, and tailored to a new mum’s needs. Dr Katrina Prior, lead researcher for the project and herself a mother of two, shares with us her journey, why we need to consider maternal mental health, and what she hopes to see from the project.

Hi Katrina! Tell us about your journey to the Matilda Centre.

After completing my double degree in psychology and commerce in 2012, I was deciding what career path to take. As I was deciding, I started working as a Research Assistant at what is now known as the Matilda Centre.  

The first project I worked on was a clinical trial examining the efficacy of behavioural activation therapy for depression among people in treatment for substance use disorders. I really enjoyed interacting with the clients, working closely with the people in our team, and immersing myself in the vibrant culture of the Centre. Consequently, I started my PhD the following year, driven by a keen interest in understanding the relationship between anxiety, depression, and substance use.

My research post-PhD continues to focus on the interplay between anxiety and alcohol use disorders, and I use my discovery research to guide the development, evaluation and implementation of effective early intervention and treatment programs tailored for these co-occurring conditions. Until a few years ago, the majority of my work in this space revolved around anxiety and alcohol-related concerns in young people; however, my focus has since shifted towards better understanding and addressing anxiety and drinking to cope among mothers during the early stages of parenthood.

What inspired you to look at anxiety and alcohol use in new mothers?

Like many, during my maternity leave, I couldn't escape the pervasive messages linking alcohol consumption to relaxation and self-care for mothers. The normalisation of ‘Wine mum’ culture, and related memes and slogans like “Mummy Wine Time”, perpetuate the idea that drinking alcohol to cope with the challenges of motherhood is not only acceptable but essential.

Despite this, I know that while alcohol may offer temporary relief from the uncertainties, overwhelm and stresses of early motherhood, ultimately, relying on drinking in the longer-term tends to exacerbate these feelings. In my mind, the normalisation and acceptance of drinking to cope with the worries of motherhood not only perpetuates harmful drinking habits, but also obscures the underlying issues of anxiety and stress among new mothers.  

To address these under-researched issues, my work now focuses on exploring the nuanced relationship between anxiety, alcohol use, and the pressures of early parenthood, with the hope of offering more constructive support and understanding to mothers navigating this challenging transition.

You’re looking at mothers with children up to three years old. Why three?

The focus on mothers with children up to three years old is based on extensive research showing that the first 1000 days of a child's life, spanning from birth to around age three, are critical for their physical, psychological, and neurological development. This is also a pivotal time when mental health difficulties, including social, emotional, and behavioural problems, can first emerge. 

This period of time is a demanding, transitional life phase for mothers, leading to increased stress, worry and uncertainty. Research indicates that many women experience clinically significant symptoms of anxiety and depression, as well as risky alcohol use during this period, which have adverse consequences for mothers and their children.  

Addressing these issues early is crucial for improving maternal mental health, fostering positive mother-child relationships, and promoting optimal mental health outcomes for children.

What do you hope to see come from your research on maternal anxiety and drinking?

I hope to develop Healthy Mum, Healthy Bub into an online support program for mothers who experience anxiety and drink alcohol as a way of managing their symptoms during the early stages of motherhood. This program will help vulnerable mothers who may not seek traditional treatment due to time constraints, inconvenience, and stigma.  

By offering support online, the program will be widely accessible to mothers, including those living in geographically isolated areas. Importantly, the team will collaborate with new mothers to tailor the program to their needs and ensure it is relevant to their experiences. My aim is for the program to enhance the health and wellbeing of the mother, and, given that maternal mental health is acknowledged as a key determinant for healthy child development, also positively impact the child’s wellbeing.

Consultations are currently happening to shape how the Healthy Mum, Healthy Bub project will support new mothers with their mental health and alcohol use. Interested in learning more about Healthy Mum, Healthy Bub? Get in contact at mum-and-bub.project@sydney.edu.au!