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Motherhood brings with it many challenges, and according to Associate Professor Helen Skouteris of the School of Psychology and Centre for Mental Health and Wellbeing Research, one of these is losing the excess weight gained during pregnancy.
“Studies have shown that about 20% of mothers still retain an excess 5kg in weight even six to 18 months after giving birth and this is affecting the health of mums and bubs alike,” said Associate Professor Skouteris.
"And there’s not much support out there to help new mothers shed this excess weight.
“Firstly, most pregnant women are not told about the risk of gaining weight during gestation, and secondly, they are often sent home with no information about how to deal with the problem."
Associate Professor Skouteris’s research work - conducted in collaboration with Professors Marita McCabe, Jeannette Milgrom and Bridie Kent – is currently examining what types of antenatal and postnatal programmes can be used to both stop this weight gain in the first place, or lose it once it has been gained.
“This is important because there is research that shows convincingly that excessive weight gained during pregnancy puts the mothers at risk of developing conditions such as preeclampsia, maternal hyperglycaemia, complications with labour and delivery, an increased risk of Caesarean and a greater risk of obesity in their child," said Associate Professor Skouteris.
“And it’s totally understandable that women gain weight during pregnancy and soon after birth.
"For example, they are usually not exercising as much, their appetite might stay the same or increase, and stress and pregnancy hormones can cause them to overeat.”
Help might be on the way however, in the form of Associate Professor Skouteris’s research program.
“Our Health in Pregnancy and Post-birth (HIPP) study is evaluating a health coaching program that provides women with additional information related to healthy behaviours and mood, and supports and assists them to initiate, maintain and achieve their goals for healthy lifestyle behaviour changes during pregnancy,” she said.
It’s not just the body that is involved though; the mind plays a role as well.
“We now know that psychological factors are also very important to consider in relation to pregnancy weight gain and yet most intervention program research to date has ignored these factors,” said Associate Professor Skouteris.
“Interestingly, pregnant women often have low self-esteem and higher levels of body image dissatisfaction, as well as anxiety and depressive symptoms.
“Therefore we find that managing weight gain during pregnancy can be more effective if it includes the management of these psychological factors.”
Recent work has been focussed on assisting pregnant women with managing their weight gain from early in pregnancy until they give birth, and then six and 12 months following birth.
“To date, no intervention has been published that has targeted behavioural changes in relation to eating and physical activity, as well as changes in psychological factors such as motivation, confidence, mood, mental health symptoms, and body image concerns, with the aim of preventing excessive gestational weight gain and 12 month postpartum weight retention," said Associate Professor Skouteris.
"This is the first of its type.
“We have now recruited from Eastern Health over half our required sample of women for our study, and we anticipate that recruitment will be completed by mid-2013.
“Then we hope to use the findings of our study to inform pregnancy and postpartum health practices, and develop public health policies in relation to the prevention of excessive weight in pregnancy and weight retention post birth.”
Given that approximately 50 per cent of Australian adult women of childbearing age are overweight or obese, this trial addresses an important need within the Australian healthcare system – that of tackling the so called “obesity epidemic” sweeping the Western world.
In time, the work of Associate Professor Skouteris, and her colleagues, will allow us to win the weighting game.