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It is a statistic that Associate Professor Helen Skouteris felt she could no longer ignore: 50 per cent of Australian woman of child bearing age are overweight or obese.
“It creates all sorts of problems for the women, for their babies, for the medical professionals who have to work with them,” she said. “It can no longer be ignored.”
And it no longer is.
Associate Professor Skouteris is leading a three year National Health and Medical Research Council Project focused on preventing excessive weight gain in pregnant women.
“Pregnancy is an opportune time for intervention and especially the holistic approach we are championing and assessing in this project,” Associate Professor Skouteris says.
“Despite pregnancy being a time of increased risk for both mother and child, it is also a time of unique opportunity, since pregnant women are working closely with the health care system and may be especially receptive to behaviour change recommendations, like they have been in relation to smoking cessation in pregnancy.
“One simple message to begin with is that women don’t have to put on excessive weight just because they’re pregnant. There are ways to maintain a healthy lifestyle and manage weight gain during pregnancy.
“One of the benefits of promoting healthy weight management around a pregnancy is that it is likely to favourably influence a woman’s health entering her succeeding pregnancies, thus improving the health of her subsequent children.
“We’ve already done pilot qualitative work with 20 late pregnant and postpartum women and found that the behavioural risk factors for weight gain during pregnancy appear to impact on psychological wellbeing after the birth of the baby.
“The women reported eating more during pregnancy and exercising less because they felt that they had an excuse given they were pregnant. In contrast, post birth women reported that they no longer had an ‘excuse’ to be large, and that they should be more in control of their bodies.
“This highlights the importance of intervening during pregnancy in order to prevent distress in the postpartum.”
The psychological issues associated with weight gain in pregnancy include:
Associate Professor Skouteris said there were a lot of myths about eating and pregnancy that needed to be debunked.
“Even today, many women still believe that because they are pregnant, they are eating for two, or that their baby is ‘telling’ them to have that extra bit of cake,” she said.
“Women need to understand that overcoming the barriers to healthy eating, physical activity, and psychological wellbeing during pregnancy will be good for them and for their babies; our intervention aims to help women become ready and confident, and adopt effective behavioural strategies, to overcome these barriers.
“I think the psychological outcomes of pregnancy are as important as the medical outcomes given that we are seeking to address solutions to the obesity epidemic which is literally a growing and complex problem in our communities.”
The intervention program has been designed to be easily adopted by health professionals who work with pregnant women, such as obstetricians, midwives, GPs, and health psychologists.
“We hypothesise that this intervention will provide a cost-effective approach to prevention of excessive gestational weight gain,” Associate Professor Skouteris said.
“The NH&MRC project will allow a rigorous evaluation of our program that our preliminary findings suggest will be effective in increasing the health of pregnant women and reducing the levels of overweight and obesity.
“Our research team is a multidisciplinary one with the relevant experience to allow an effective and holistic approach.”
The research team:
Associate Professor Helen Skouteris, Psychology, Deakin University
Professor Marita McCabe, Psychology, Deakin University
Professor Jeannette Milgrom, Psychology, University of Melbourne
Professor Bridie Kent, Nursing and Midwifery, Deakin University
Catherine Mihalopoulos, Health Economist, Deakin University.
Dr Sharon Herring, Assistant Professor of Medicine and Public Health, Temple University, US.
Dr Malcolm Barnett, Director of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Eastern Health.
Associate Professor Denise Patterson, Chief of Clinical & Site Operations, Box Hill Hospital/Program Director, Women & Children, Eastern Health.
Associate Professor Glyn Teale, Director of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Western Health.
Janette Gale, Managing Director of Health Coaching Australia (HCA).