A healthy start for mums and babies worldwide

Dr Catherine Chojenta’s research is helping to give more babies a better start to life by supporting their mum’s health during preconception, pregnancy and the perinatal period.

Dr Catherine Chojenta image

Dr Catherine Chojenta’s work is giving more babies the chance at a healthy and thriving life by examining the main problems faced by mums and babies before, during and after pregnancy.

For mothers, this includes challenges such as tobacco and alcohol use, mental illness, mum-infant attachment difficulties and more. For babies, Catherine’s work is helping to build essential information about stillbirth, congenital conditions and other key infant health issues.

“My research explores how women’s health and wellbeing in preconception and pregnancy impact on birth outcomes and babies’ outcomes. The relationship between maternal and infant health is critical and can have a profound impact on outcomes for the birth and for that child in the future.

“My high-level research goal is to identify the ways to optimise the health of mothers and their babies, so all babies can have the best possible start to life. Once we’ve identified how to optimise early life, we can have a significant impact on child development and wellbeing.”

Creating nation-wide change

A mother’s health can have a substantial impact on her baby. It can affect her baby’s chances of survival, how they bond with the family, and even their long-term wellbeing as they grow and develop. Research continues to highlight the importance of good maternal health during the prenatal and perinatal periods. And yet, infant deaths and rates of illness worldwide remain staggeringly high. Catherine asserts that, despite progress, additional research is crucial to saving more lives.

“While much work has been done globally to improve infant outcomes, the rates of stillbirths, low birth weight and prematurity have remained largely unchanged, even in Australia.

“This indicates that there are still underlying reasons why these conditions occur that we are yet to understand. Large administrative datasets, as well as data collected via large-scale longitudinal studies, are helping us better understand what’s happening so we can inform solutions.”

To help bring national change, Catherine was involved in one of Australia’s most important longitudinal studies, the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health, between 2001-2013. Catherine’s role for the study saw her contribute to numerous reports, promotional material and peer-reviewed journal articles that provided key insights into the physical and mental health of Australian women and led to important new policies, such as the National Women’s Health Policy 2010.

“I managed several research projects for the study, conducting both semi-structured and open-ended interviews with younger women on a range of topics such as postnatal depression and experiences of motherhood, tobacco use in relation to life stages, and alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

“The study provided invaluable data about the health of women across the lifespan and is now informing federal and state government policies.”

Committed to global advancement

Catherine is also committed to supporting the health of mums and babies around the world. Despite global progress, more than 303,000 children worldwide pass away within four weeks of birth every year, according to the World Health Organisation. Catherine asserts that more young lives could be saved by providing mothers with basic, timely perinatal care and support.

“In developing countries, empowering women to be able to access antenatal care, skilled delivery care and postnatal care can have a major impact on maternal and infant health.

“Identifying those who are least likely to receive care, and developing interventions to improve their access, will significantly improve the lives of mothers and their babies. Access to health services is a key way to avert maternal and infant mortality and morbidity.”

To help generate new knowledge on global health services for maternal and infant wellbeing, Catherine is currently working as the infant health lead for the Priority Research Centre for Generational Health and Ageing’s Worldwide Wellness of Mothers and Babies program.

For this program, Catherine collaborates with many of the University’s leading researchers in maternal and infant health, including Professor Deborah Loxton, Dr Melissa Harris, Dr Nicole Reilly and Associate Professor Kym Rae. Their shared goal is to eliminate preventable maternal and infant mortality and morbidity by conducting a plethora of research at global, national and community levels.

“As well as contributing to research projects, I also supervise 18 students through the program, mostly from developing countries, who are studying key areas of maternal and infant health around the globe. It’s one of my greatest career highlights to date.”

Targeted support for local families

In partnership with fellow researchers and clinicians from the John Hunter Children’s Hospital, Catherine is currently leading a collaborative data-driven project to examine the maternal and environmental risk factors for congenital conditions in NSW.

Congenital conditions such as heart defects, neural tube defects and Down syndrome can contribute to long-term disability and affect a child’s entire life. Catherine explains that the project was started after staff noticed a worrying trend among children in the Hunter region.

“This is an important project as it arose from clinical observations in the rise of some congenital conditions, especially in our local area.

“By using linked administrative datasets, we have enough statistical power to explore these rare conditions, which would not be possible with conventional recruitment techniques. This project brings together public health strategies to investigate a clinical issue.”

Across her program of work, Catherine is driven by the central goal of providing mums and babies with the right support at the right time. Committed to generating new knowledge and creating evidence-based solutions, Catherine is helping to create significant and meaningful benefits for families and the next generation.

“I am very passionate about my research in women’s health, especially reproductive health. I’m inspired to discover ways to enable all infants to have the best start to life. This sets them up to have an optimised childhood and adult life, which will then have a positive impact on future generations.”

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