Groundbreaking studies on maternal health

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The Women’s Health Concerns Clinic (WHCC) at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton is unique. It provides comprehensive assessment, consultation and treatment for women who are experiencing mood problems related to the menstrual cycle, childbearing or menopause.

WHCC also conducts clinical and biological research in these areas.

Among the significant and exciting research currently being conducted is a study that asks if postpartum depression (PDD) can be prevented. Researchers are investigating whether a cause of PPD may be a state familiar and common among new mothers: sleep deprivation. They want to know the effects of reducing that deprivation during the first week after birth.

“We talk about the jetlagged mom,” said Dr. Meir Steiner, psychiatrist and director of WHCC. “We’ve learned that for those who are prone to depression, being sleep deprived can trigger an episode. So here are women in late pregnancy, in labour and those caring for a new baby who are by definition, sleep deprived.”

Women in the program who have been identified as being at risk, either because of a past depression or a family history of the disease, are medically prescribed a private room. The new moms care for their baby during the day but are allowed to sleep at night while nurses or family members care for the infants.

“We do that for five days and five nights after the woman has given birth,” said Steiner. “And that’s exactly what it takes to get the system back in sync. When you are truly jetlagged – such as landing from Australia – the body clock takes that long to resynchronize.”

The program was piloted and implemented at St. Joseph’s Healthcare with “absolute and fabulous support” of the local teams said Steiner. “We are now doing a randomized, controlled trial with three other hospitals in Ontario – Women’s College in Toronto, McMaster University in Hamilton and Joseph Brant in Burlington. The trial will last for two years. We then hope this kind of program will become policy everywhere.”

Another important study is looking at whether a mother’s stress, anxiety, or depression during pregnancy affects her baby.

Maternal Adversity, Vulnerability and Neurodevelopment (MAVAN) is a multi-centred investigation taking place in Montreal, Toronto and Hamilton. WHCC is leading the clinical arm of the study with the motto: “Healthy Pregnancy For Great Life Beginnings”.

“We were chosen because no other site in Canada has as great an access to depressed moms,” said Steiner. “The study includes clinical, psychological, endocrinological and genetic assessments as well as preventive and therapeutic interventions with long term follow up of both moms and their babies. It’s a huge undertaking.”

Science has already proven the potential devastating ill effects on the foetus of alcohol and/or drug abuse as well as smoking during pregnancy. “But this study is specific to stress. That’s difficult to measure and it’s difficult to decide what to do about it. We want to know how much damage stress might potentially cause if it’s not dealt with during pregnancy.”

Those are just two of the research projects now underway at the Women’s Health Concerns Clinic. Clinical and biologic research is an integral part of the success of WHCC. “Over the years we’ve done some exciting things, both in terms of our clinical results, our education and the research that we’ve done. And we have access to an amazing population who are willing, even eager, to participate.”