Women making a difference: Dr Shelley Wilkinson

Thursday 08 March 2018

As a recipient of last year’s Mater Research Grant for Outstanding Women, Dr Shelley Wilkinson  is passionate about supporting women to have healthy pregnancies and healthy babies and making it easier for health services to meet women’s needs during this time.

As Dr Wilkinson explains, what happens during pregnancy can last a lifetime.

“Science is now showing us that the environment in which a baby develops, including their exposure to the amounts and types of foods is linked to its risk of that child developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease and even some cancers.

“Pregnancy is also a natural ‘stress test’ that can accelerate a woman’s chronic disease pathway. Shorter term pregnancy and delivery outcomes that are related to nutrition include anaemia (low iron), an increased rate of neural tube defects, miscarriage and stillbirth, a woman’s pattern of weight gain, and her need for a caesarean section,” said Dr Wilkinson.

The opening of the new Mater Mothers’ Hospital in 2008 triggered Dr Wilkinson’s research in this area.

“To ensure we were providing high quality programs that met women’s needs we worked with women and staff to inform the research we were going to undertake.  Our Mater mums told us nutrition was important or very important to them during pregnancy, but many didn’t meet guidelines for diet or gestational weight gain and had poor knowledge of diet, weight gain, and our services.

“Few effective programs were identified across Australian maternity services, so we had to develop and test our own.”

Using a ‘co-creation’ approach, the team addressed the gaps; defining research priorities through their end-users – women.

“As a result of our work, we’ve seen women significantly increasing the amount of fruit and vegetables consumed and physical activity undertaken in pregnancy, decreasing excessive gestational weight gain and lengthening breastfeeding times.

We’ve also developed the Mater personalised pregnancy weight-tracker and practical and informative videos available to watch in clinic waiting rooms or online,” said Dr Wilkinson.

Working part time since returning from maternity leave in 2016 has meant Dr Wilkinson’s productivity capacity to devote to this research area has been impacted.

“The grant has enhanced my capacity as a researcher, being able to employ research midwives and research assistants to ensure that Mater Mums receive the benefits of our ongoing research.”

The Mater Research Strategic Grants for Outstanding Women are proudly funded through Mater Foundation’s generous donors and supporters.